What are the big issues in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough mayoral race?

A generic stock pic of Cambridge. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities’ recent Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral hustings showed that the city region’s new mayor will face a unique challenge when they take office: namely, addressing the diverse issues that Cambridge and Peterborough face in growing their economies.

The discussion at the event highlighted that, when it comes to areas such as housing, transport and skills, very different policies will be needed to ensure that both places – and the rural areas between them – can thrive in the coming years

Cambridge is one of the least affordable cities in the UK when it comes to housing, and so it was no surprise that this was one of the key issues in the hustings. Labour candidate Kevin Price made great play of the fact that as Deputy Leader of Cambridge City Council he’d been closely involved in negotiating the housing component of the city region’s devolution deal. In particular, he referred to the two deals the Combined Authority has done to boost affordable housing, including £100m for housing associations in the county beyond Cambridge.

Liberal Democrat candidate Rod Cantrill also focused on housing affordability, arguing that this discussion should not focus solely on houses for sale, with rental properties in high demand and just as unaffordable. He proposed a Local Living Rent set at no more than 33 per cent of the average local wage.

For independent candidate Peter Dawe, the key to addressing the city region’s housing needs is removing prohibitive planning restrictions and the intransigence of local councillors (including some of those sharing the platform with him). He proposed tearing up the planning system so that individual plots were put in the hands of potential buyers to expedite construction.

The need to get around planning restrictions was also highlighted by Conservative candidate James Palmer, who raised the example of the Community Land Trust in local villages Streatham and Wilburton, which enables local residents to neatly sidestep a planning system designed to protect the existing environment at the expense building new homes. However, to what extent this kind of initiative can be applied more widely is unclear.

Another big area of priority for Palmer in the debate was skills and education, which as our analysis shows is a particularly big issue in Peterborough. James Palmer argued for greater esteem and incentives for apprenticeships, and proposed that schools in the area should get league table points for getting young people into apprenticeships. He claimed that he could use his links to national government to make the city region a pilot area for the schools league table reform.

Peter Dawe echoed this idea by suggesting that schools had become factories for sending kids to university, in the process devaluing manual work. He recounted a recent conversation with civil engineers working on a local bypass who could not see the next generation coming through the ranks – put off by an education system biased against jobs in which your boots would get dirty.

A technology millionaire who made his fortune in the county, Dawe unsurprisingly saw technology as the solution to another of Cambridge’s big issues, traffic congestion. He proposed apps to facilitate greater use of taxis and buses in rural areas, and new single-seater pod-vehicles that would turn Cambridge City Centre’s roads into free-flowing four-line highways. In contrast, James Palmer promised to introduce a light rail for the county and an underground for city of Cambridge as one of his key election pledges

However, a cheaper way of reducing traffic and generating revenue to improve public transport across the city region would be to implement a congestion charge in Cambridge, as proposed in our recent briefing for the city region’s metro mayor.

James Palmer opposed this idea completely, in favour of digging tunnels and laying track. Kevin Price also rejected the idea outright, preferring greater investment in a Park and Ride facilities and a workplace-parking levy in the city centre, while Rod Cantrill seemed more open to the idea of a congestion charge without committing to it.

What the debate lacked, however, was a clear sense of the different needs of Peterborough and Cambridge when it comes to growing their economies. As has probably become clear, much of the discussion focused on issues which are particularly relevant to Cambridge, but less so in Peterborough – where neither housing shortages nor congestion are significant problems.

That is perhaps understandable given that the event was held in Cambridge. But whoever becomes metro mayor for the city region will have a mandate that stretches across these two separate and distinct urban areas, and the wide expanses of countryside, fenland and agricultural land that lie between them.

Setting out a policy platform which recognises the very different approaches needed in Cambridge and Peterborough, and which also offers a coherent narrative and vision for the whole city region, will be critical in making a success of the role.

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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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.

The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).


The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:


Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.


Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.