End of term report: How is James Palmer doing as mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough?

Cambridge. Image: Getty.

Continuing the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at James Palmer, Conservative mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

The collapse of the vast East Anglia devolution deal in November 2016 looked to have killed off devolution in the East of England. But a late push locally saw Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (C&P) announce a deal to set up a Combined Authority in March this year, ahead of the mayoral elections in May.

The rapid nature of this process meant that there was less time to prepare the ground politically and institutionally for the new metro mayor than in other city regions. As a result, the successful candidate James Palmer (previously Conservative leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council) is working with an entirely new political geography – which throws up a range of issues which some of his mayoral counterparts don’t face.

Six months into the job, we look at the challenges this poses for the new C&P mayor, and the progress he has made so far on achieving the objectives he set out upon taking office.

Progress and opportunities

To gauge Palmer’s headway so far, a good place to start is his ‘first 100 days’ strategy, which set out 32 priorities focused on transport, skills and housing. These included plans to explore options for a county-wide light rail scheme to link smaller towns into the jobs of Peterborough and Cambridge (which will report back in December), and for an underground transport system in Cambridge. They also included a pledge to launch new affordable housing schemes across the city regions.

These priorities reflect the need to deal with the costs of growth in the city region, such as high house prices (Cambridge is the third least affordable city in the UK), congestion, and economic disparities. And while many of Palmer’s ambitions are long-term projects which will take years, not months, to be completed, the new mayor has already made progress towards realising them. For example, he has launched feasibility studies into his transport ideas, and has announced 11 new housing schemes which will bring over 250 new affordable homes.

There is clearly much more to do to address housing and transport issues in the city region, but these steps indicate that Palmer recognises these problems and intends to tackle them. There is also a real opportunity for the mayor to use his strategic planning powers – which include oversight over a housing and infrastructure fund worth £100m, and the ability to implement a non-statutory spatial plan – to unlock more housing sites and transport.

Moreover, as a Conservative mayor for a city region which the National Infrastructure Commission has highlighted as strategically important, Palmer might expect to draw on government support as his feasibility plans become concrete proposals and plans. This theory will be put to the test if (and when) the government responds to his calls for greater Land Value Capture powers, and when the Department for Communities and Local Government makes a decision on C&P’s bid for £200m investment to build 7,600 homes in North Cambridge.


Toughest challenge

Geography is the main reason C&P stands out from the other areas electing a metro mayor in May. Largely rural, with two distinct and separate economies – Peterborough in the north and Cambridge in the south – the geography of the city region places unique demands on Mayor Palmer. Spending and policy geared to Peterborough will have little impact on (and may be potentially unsuited to) Cambridge, while those living in small towns or villages in rural areas may feel completely ignored. Making policy at the C&P level that works for everyone in the city region will therefore be a bigger challenge than in other places.

However, the strong economic performance of places across the area should make this a more manageable task than in more geographically coherent mayoral combined authorities which are less economically buoyant. Moreover, Palmer’s ambitions to improve transport connections between the north and south of C&P – and to better link people across the city region to jobs in Greater Cambridge – show that he is attempting to deal with the challenges that the city region’s unwieldy geography poses.

Biggest moment

The one institution that existed at the C&P geography before the combined authority was the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which in October had its funding frozen due to a National Audit Office investigation into its finances. Mayor Palmer responded to this development by writing an open letter to say that the LEP was causing reputational damage to the area and failing to represent or support local businesses. He also called for a new governance structure that would bring the LEP in house, to restore confidence and address some structural issues in the LEP.

This represented the most high profile moment in Palmer’s mayoralty thus far. More importantly, his call for the LEP to be integrated into the combined authority makes sense, as it would allow the mayor and LEP to work more strategically and coherently, while maintaining a strong voice for local businesses. Indeed, in other city regions such as Tees Valley and the West of England, the Combined Authorities have grown out of the LEPs, which are therefore highly integrated with the mayoralty. The resolution of issues with the LEP in C&P will have a significant impact on ensuring there is a shared, efficient and effective vision for the C&P economy in the coming years.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.