Taxpayer will be ‘on the hook’ if costs rise on Waterbeach station move
The taxpayer would have to foot the bill should the Waterbeach station relocation project cost more than estimated.
The Greater Cambridge Partnership’s joint assembly heard that, if approved, the body would not only bridge the £20million gap in the project, but also take on the delivery of the new station at Waterbeach New Town. This means that should the cost rise due to inflation or the uncertain economic climate then the GCP would be liable for that increase.
The GCP, which is currently over-budgeted by £188m, has said that providing the funding could mean other schemes are made less of a priority.
Liberal Democrat Cllr Alex Beckett, who represents Cambridgeshire County Council on the GCP, said the authority appeared to be “on the hook”.
He said: “I think we would all rather not be doing the project if we’re blatantly honest, but it does fit within the realms of what the GCP was created to do. Therefore, we are in the situation we are in. I think all of us would rather be spending the GCPs money on bigger, sexier busway and city access projects that demonstrate gain to the local communities whereas in these cases it looks like we’re propping up other people that should be spending the money.”
Cllr Beckett added: “There is a worry that with inflation the way it is, there is a high likelihood of this exceeding the current budget and therefore, it looks like we’re currently on the hook for that.”
Labour’s Cllr Katie Thornburrow, representing Cambridge City Council, said she would like to possibly delay a decision while there is such economic uncertainty, but recognised that doing so could delay the homes being built.
Questions were also raised as to why the partnership was proposing to take on the scheme now, when it was previously planned to be developer-led.
The station relocation is estimated to cost £37m and is a condition of the outline plans for 4,500 homes at the Waterbeach New Town development, which was approved by South Cambridgeshire District Council.
The developer RLW Estates is proposed to contribute £17m towards the cost of relocating the station.
A meeting of the GCP’s joint assembly last Thursday heard that the developer is set to make a 20 per cent profit on the development but cannot fully fund the relocation – it says that were it forced to do so then it would have to reduce the amount of affordable housing on the site.
Stephen Kelly, the joint director of planning and economic development at the Greater Cambridge shared planning service, said the developer could in theory fund the project, but that this could mean fewer affordable homes provided in the development.
The developer has agreed to make 30 per cent of the site affordable housing at the cost of £132m, which is supported by the council despite being under its 40 per cent minimum.
Members at the meeting said they recognised the need for the station to be built, but raised concerns over the risk the GCP would be opening itself up to by taking on the project.
Questions were also raised by members of the public as to why a public authority was now proposing to fund the majority of the project.
Resident Jane Williams asked the assembly: “RLW repeatedly stated at public consultations that they, as the developer, would fully fund the relocated station.
“Why were RLW unable to secure a commercial funding arrangement? Does this indicate the risk/terms are so difficult that no funder was prepared to commit. If so, why is the GCP prepared to do so?”
Conservative Cllr Heather Williams, representing South Cambridgeshire District Council, asked why the position had now changed given that at the time the application was considered the GCP said it would not provide funding for the scheme.
Assembly chair Cllr Tim Bick, the Liberal Democrat opposition leader on Cambridge City Council, asked why the project was appearing before the members now, adding that for some it appeared to have ‘arrived from nowhere’.
Peter Blake, transport director, said the GCP had previously believed the funding would be coming from elsewhere, so at the time of the planning permission there was not a need for public funding.
Since then both Network Rail and the Department for Transport have declined to provide funding.
Niamh Matthews, assistant director of strategy and programme, said: “There is a requirement to relocate the station as part of the planning decision. In order to unlock the homes, the station needs to be moved. This proposal means we are meeting that requirement with the city deal used as a mechanism to do that.”
Cllr Williams said that the fact that the rail industry had said no to funding the project “rang alarm bells” for her.
The funding will need to be approved by the GCP’s executive board, which next meets on Thursday, June 30.
Cllr Bick will report to the board that the assembly would like them to check if there are any ways the authority “can protect itself even more” in terms of risk, and that the members were “cautious” about the plan.