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‘Scrapping the Cambridge Autonomous Metro leaves us with no plan’

A row has broken out over plans to scrap the Cambridge Autonomous Metro (CAM) proposals without a replacement “world-class transport system” in place.

What a metro entrance tunnel might look like. Picture: Natalie Harmer (49943195)
What a metro entrance tunnel might look like. Picture: Natalie Harmer (49943195)

Councillors have hit out at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor Dr Nik Johnson and warned that “tinkering around with buses, does not and will not deliver the game changing public transport that’s needed”.

Work to deliver the CAM programme had already been suspended by the Labour mayor following a promise he made to voters during his election campaign.

But the Combined Authority Board on Thursday (July 29) approved that the work of the delivery body One CAM Ltd be suspended until a comprehensive review of the programme is carried out.

Cllr Anna Bailey, Cambridgeshire County Council. (49943203)
Cllr Anna Bailey, Cambridgeshire County Council. (49943203)

Conservative Cllr Anna Bailey, board member and leader of East Cambs District Council, said: “This is the very first time that we have ever collectively discussed this subject, which is shocking.”

She hit out at the mayor for announcing plans to scrap the metro before discussing it with the Combined Authority board.

Cllr Bailey said it was “the very opposite of cooperation” which is one the mayor’s key pledges for his tenure.

She told the committee: “I know it’s been early days and you say you’ve learned some lessons but it’s not a good feeling from this side.”

And she pointed to an email sent by Dr Johnson which directed the OneCam team to halt the programme with “immediate effect” and told the “principle suppliers the same”.

Cllr Bailey continued by accusing the mayor of asking the Combined Authority chief executive Kim Sawyer to use her “constitutional emergency powers” to cease work on the “stated aim” to “ensure that OneCam Ltd wasn’t plunged into insolvency”.

“We’re not suggesting for one second that there’s been any actual impropriety on the part of the chief executive, but it is not a good look,” she said.

The result of the Cambridgeshire Mayoral elections won by Dr Nik Johnson seen here with his mum Kath . Picture: Keith Heppell. (49943169)
The result of the Cambridgeshire Mayoral elections won by Dr Nik Johnson seen here with his mum Kath . Picture: Keith Heppell. (49943169)

Dr Johnson said in his 2021 election campaign that a multi-billion pound CAM system – featuring vehicles that dived beneath Cambridge in tunnels and connected surrounding villages and towns at street level – would not be deliverable or bring improvements to where they were needed most.

He said a major rethink was needed on how transport can level up areas which suffer most from deprivation and inequality, such as in Fenland and Peterborough.

Cllr Bailey went on: “An earlier paper talked about the need for a world-class public transport system and that’s exactly what we need to go with our world -lass business and our world-class innovation in our area.

“The mayor hasn’t yet put forward an alternative. And now, we seem to be pejorative about bus franchising – tinkering around with buses, does not and will not deliver the game changing public transport that’s needed.”

She continued: “The mayor seems to think that CAM is all about Cambridge city, and it absolutely is not. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s about levelling up the whole of our geography, over time, to spread accessibility to high quality jobs to level up.”

The councillor said it leaves any plans the GCP had to incorporate CAM “in tatters” adding: “and we’ve been waiting for delivery by the GCP to sort out the problems of Cambridge city for a very long time – business have come out and cited concerns about the loss of CAM.

“The mayor has described it as a pipe dream, and a white elephant. I’ve heard that phrase used many, many times about projects that have actually gone on to be delivered like the Ely bypass and Soham railway station.

“I think it’s a very good job that scientists mapping the genome didn’t just give up at the first hurdle, and a very good job that the people who have had the ambition for developing a Covid vaccine inside of a year didn’t just give up and say it’s too difficult, You know, nothing in life is worth having is easily won, and to stifle ambition for our geography in this way to me, is shocking.”

She continued: “I’d like to hear from the mayor, in his own words, not those of a prepared speech, what is his rationale for cancelling? What does he think will replace it, you know, what are we going to hear about in two months time in September. What is his vision for transport for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and how will you deal with the Cambridge city access issues? If the mayor insists on seeing through his cancellation of this project, it is this mayor Dr Johnson that will have wasted that 10 million quid.

“We’ve now got another four-year mayoral term, with a mayor with some different ideas, how long is it going to take us to reach a point of an alternative vision and alternative local transport vision that is world class, and start implementing it?”

Leader of the council Lewis Herbet. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49943200)
Leader of the council Lewis Herbet. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49943200)

But Cambridge City Council leader, Labour’s Lewis Herbert, hit back: “I could describe CAM Metro as kind of like the Vera Lynn project: you don’t know where and you don’t know when, and in particular, there was no fundability.”

He continued: “I personally would like to have radical solutions, but I don’t think we were in a position to say where the money was coming from.

“And in the meantime there’s people sitting at different bus stops waiting for buses around the county that only come every two hours. I do think that we have to have a more practical focus on what’s going to be achieved in the next 10 years.”

Cllr Ryan Fuller, Conservative councillor for Huntingdonshire District Council, echoed Cllr Bailey’s concerns: “We do want a good bus network but we should have that and a world-class transport system. And we’re already hearing concerns from business community around the vacuum that exists now that there is no prospect for CAM and that there is nothing necessarily coming forward to replace it.

“Councillor Bailey’s quite right to point to the 10 million pounds that the authority has invested in this project to date, and that will represent a tremendous waste of money by you, mayor, I’m afraid by scrapping this before you got to grips with the programme once you were elected.”

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson said he believed in his team and the Combined Authority to bring forward something “innovative” that will be “life-changing for all our communities”.

Dr Nik Johnson the new Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority seen in Ely where the mayor's office is based. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49943164)
Dr Nik Johnson the new Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority seen in Ely where the mayor's office is based. Picture: Keith Heppell. (49943164)

He said after the meeting: “I want to build a transport system shaped by compassion, cooperation and community.

“We can show compassion by investing in areas which for too long have been left behind. This is a moral question – a lack of good transport causes real harm. It holds places back, cutting people off from better jobs, services, and social contact. It results in poorer public health and wellbeing, and, worst of all, lower life expectancy. We must work to a plan which puts the success of left behind areas first.

“Cooperation is about working with our partners. The GCP has hundreds of millions of pounds to improve transport in Greater Cambridge – we should be working closely so that its investments link with a strategy for the rest of the county. In particular, we will work together on the challenge of improving journeys across Cambridge city centre. Collaborating with local councils, with government, with East West Rail, with bus and rail operators, and with colleagues across borders is also vital in creating a transport system which recognises the interests of all our partners.

“I’m also pragmatic. A multi-billion-pound CAM is too expensive and, in my view, not deliverable. It won’t offer a solution to the inequalities exist across our region.

“But the work done on the CAM can be used, and the latest thinking on 21st century transport can be just as well deployed in other parts of the county as it can around Cambridge. For example, there is real potential for new metro-style solutions for linking March and Wisbech and where cycling and walking infrastructure comes built in.

“And it is too easy to forget about the untapped potential of buses for better connecting communities, and helping reduce the weight of transport’s carbon footprint. We must look at buses with a fresh eye, that will fully explore the potential for a franchised system which makes services work better for people and places, and cleaning up air with emission-free journeys.”

The future of CAM will come to the board in September.

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