Cambridge is often heralded as unique in Britain, in that more people cycle here than elsewhere. And thats certainly true, although the numbers aren't as great as some would have you believe. In my view thats only one of the many ways this city is different to the rest of the UK. There is also strong evidence that we have the worst local government stratification in the country, and that this is completely ruining any hope of ever having an effective transport policy.
To explain why, one must look at the organisations involved.
The City itself is operated by Cambridge City Council. Its currently Labour run although as things stand its hard to know whether that majority is safe going forward, especially with coming boundary changes. When you drill down into it you find that the local Labour party is as divided as it is everywhere else - we've got hard red Trots like Dave Baigent and Kevin Price (I can make a case for him being the second worst councillor Cambridge has ever had), essentially they're hard nosed Corbynistas, and we have notorious cyclist haters like Gerri Bird, all the way to pragmatic modernists like Carina O'Reilly. And this has bubbled over into petty deselections of councillors to apparently balance the wings of the party. The idea they might have a unified or intelligent transport policy is extremely far fetched.
But in a way that barely matters because the transport authority is the County Council. And that authority is made up of a few labour and liberal democrat councillors mostly from Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, but is dominated by a comfortable majority of red in the face Tory fruitcakes representing rural and fenland constituencies where a monkey with a blue rosette would win. So thats who they put up, the most frothing at the mouth, swivel eyed, nasty Tory who passes muster with the local associations seemingly more interested in the petty hurt they can inflict by executing Tory dogma than anything else. Until recently the only challenge they faced was UKIP, so now they're effectively unopposed. If they have any interest in Cambridge at all its how to fleece us for council tax to then spend giving immigrants a harder time in the Fens, and how they can maintain car access for hate filled geriatrics who had their souls sucked out by Thatcher. Suggestions to them that cycling and walking are important is likely to get you shot through the lungs.
Then we have South Cambridgeshire. That was a Tory stronghold but spectacular mismanagement gave the Liberal Democrats a way in. So far they haven't done much - in itself sufficient reason for cynicism, and they've really flopped when faced with intransigent road engineers who are making a right royal mess of the arterial road through their area. But they're there. And thats as much as we can say for them.
And lastly there's East Cambridgeshire, a council so ineffective it fights over folk festival parades. Its a bizarrely run, car-centric place in which an unsustainable free parking in the historic city of Ely means that you can neither walk nor breath safely there. At least its Tory/Libdem contest, but as its a contest fought for control of a freakishly car dependent part of the county I hold out no hope of any improvement.
So four different local government bodies all with their own transport priorities? Oh, no. We're not done. Not by a long way.
Because having at least two, even three layers of local government in each location wasn't enough, our local councillors agreed with central government to have a directly elected mayor who covering the needs of the frothing at the mouth UKIP fenlanders, the cosmopolitan and complex city of Peterborough, and the professors of Cambridge who can show mathematical proof of Plancks constant but if you boil carrots and potatoes in the same pan it blows their minds. Big ask - squaring the circle of a bus and train city, the nations cycling capital and a county that would render down their own children for another gallon of diesel.
The mayor is and will, as far as we can see, always be a Tory - which upsets the Labour/Libdem City of Cambridge. And because its so safe its very prone to cronyism, with the rate at which the mayor shovels cash into the coffers of his mates seemingly showing now bounds. They Mayor has plans for reforming our transport in the city, but he'll probably just blow all his cash on posh headquarters and severance pay.
And last, but oh my gosh no means least, because things weren't complicated enough and we weren't blowing enough cash on 5 layers of squabbling local government (district or city council, possibly a parish council area, the mayoral authority, county council and of course the elected police commissioner) we also have a massive body of good old fashioned quangos shoveling money into endless consultations but very little solid infrastructure work. It was called Cambridge Cit Deal but that became so toxic they renamed it Greater Cambridge - yeah, they say its because that was more inclusive, so at best the rebranding might seem convenient. And they have their own plans and views, and ever more absurd and peculiar ways of feigning democratic mandate for an entirely un-elected body.
Needless to say, this city doesn't have a transport policy, nor a coherent development policy. We're a hub for economic growth and in a very short time the city has grown beyond all expectations, and continues to expand. And at the top? More of a bun-fight than an authority. The Mayoral plan is different to Greater Cambridge, which isn't reflected by what the County wants, and the City don't agree with any of that. While the Districts have their own priorities too.
What a mess. What a pity. What a monstrous waste of resources, having endless overlapping consultations from needlessly repeated local government positions.
I'll go on to detail how plans of the City Deal and the Mayoral authority differ (and indeed why each is, independently, pathetic) in future posts. But for now, I can conclude that there is no way that the current system can work. Strip away all but two of these layers of government, divide the total number of councillors by 3 and make that a full time job. It would be cheaper, faster, comprehensible, and might actually get something done.