Mayoral candidates on City Deal, Brexit, housing and transport at Cambridge Union

There’s 600,00 people eligible to vote in the May 4 election for the first Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the inaugural winner will have a substantial budget to direct, as was outlined at Cambridge Union on April 5 when Cambridge Network had all five candidates on the bill.

There’s an annual £70m housing budget to help meet affordable housing needs in Cambridge plus £100m a year for the wider region’s housing. Then there’s £600m – £20m a year for 30 years – to promote economic growth, plus skills and apprenticeship provision and the integration of health and social plans. Transport infrastructure is also part of the mayor’s responsibilities.

Lining up at the famed Cambridge speaking chamber were five candidates: Kevin Price for Labour, Conservative James Palmer, Liberal Democrat Rod Cantrell, independent Peter Dawe and the Green Party’s Julie Howell, except she was indisposed and her place was taken by Jeremy Caddick, the Party’s candidate in the local County Council elections which will also be held on May 4.

“This is a complete change in the way local government will work in this county… to make it fit for the 21st century,” said James Palmer, currently leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and a county councillor.

Jeremy Caddick said: “Our existence as a political party is to fashion sustainable ways of living and to do that quite urgently.” He illustrated our changing economy by noting that in the green energy sector “electric transport has moved in the last few years from the fringes to the mainstream”.

Peter Dawe, the third candidate to speak, presented his analysis of local politics by saying that “local government has ceased to work”, his conclusion being that “what we need to do is reinvent local government, to do a complete reset, and this is something only an independent candidate can do”.

Next up was Cambridge councillor and deputy leader of the council Kevin Price, for Labour, who said that he’s “proud that Cambridgeshire County Council is a highly successful council and that in challenging times the council has continued to deliver not only on growth but also in housing terms”. The “visible and accessible” mayor’s “key role is to bring extra money into Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, especially the most deprived areas”.

Rod Cantrell, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said “the region faces two once-in-a-lifetime challenges: how we deliver sustainable growth, and Brexit”. Skills, housing and a “strategic, integrated transport plan” are key factors.

The debate opened out with questions presented by the chairman, Robert Marshall, to the panel. Jeremy Caddick pointed to a key local issue being “an overheated housing market and we suffer from it here, this takes up more of peoples income and acts as a brake on the local economy”. Both he and Rod Cantrill want to see the percentage of affordable housing in new developments raised from 40 to 50%. Cantrill supports the London Living Rent, an initiative from London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, which assesses the rent of a property as being one third of of the average household income.

Meanwhile James Palmer has “a plan for trust houses”. It’s via a working model at Manor Farm in Stretham with 15 houses on a site of 50 homes reserved for local people to buy or rent. He’s also a fan of building an underground rail network under Cambridge. “It’s imperative to solve the problems in this city and we must do so.”

Kevin Price pointed out that “two-thirds of transport journeys are made by bus” and he wants to “join up public services”. The problem isn’t just congestion. Jeremy Caddick said council data suggests “250 excess deaths a year were caused by air pollution and a majority are caused by buses, particularly diesel buses”. Price knows that air quality is an issue. “You can see why Councillor Herbert is asking for Cambridge to be included in the first wave of clean air cities in the UK.”

The Grater Cambridge City Deal chairman’s proposal has received much coverage but has also highlighted how difficult the rites of passage for the City Deal project have been. “For skills there’s been some progress, for transport it’s been a disaster,” said Cantrill. The reason is “lack of leadership” and “a bunch of policies pulled off the shelf”. There’s been “a lack of strategic vision: the new leadership is pulling it together but it’s two years too late and it’s going to take a lot of time to rebuild trust”.

“I cannot understand why they haven’t resigned,” said Peter Dawe.

Kevin Price blamed the Liberal Democrats for the City Deal’s woes, specifically “using existing county council officers and having no chief executive”.

“The thing the City Deal lacks is an actual connection with communities on the ground, it feels too remote and imposed,” said Caddick.

“The funding set-up is poor,” said Palmer. “It encourages short-term thinking. The City Deal still has a place but it has to show leadership.”

The regions are vital to the success of the local economy but Peter Dawe prefers “building new towns, not scattering them across the green fields of Cambridgeshire… Waterbeach and Northstowe are not sustainable”.

“When I go to Wisbech or March,” said Cantrill, “they don’t feel the benefits of growth in Cambridge and one of my roles as mayor would be to make sure they do.”

James Palmer wants “business growth in every part of the county”.

“We need government to replace any funding we lose through Brexit,” said Kevin Price at the event ,which was “sponsored/supported” by pharma giant AstraZeneca, “because without that any chance we have for growth will be seriously damaged.”

The mayoral race has been slow to get going and that may be because it’s a new role, so candidates have no benchmark to aspire to. It’s currently difficult to predict a winner: they all have different strengths and offer various options but a vision of sustainable and affordable growth is one they all share – it’s just about how to deliver. The turnout will reflect how much impact the candidates have had: anything less than 250,000 would be disappointing for a mayor who will be making major decisions on behalf of 600,000 voters.

The mayor is also an ambassador for the region. In the Q&A a member of the audience asked: “Is the role cast for a dictator or a cat herder?”

Peter Dawe’s response was: “We don’t need a strong leader, we need a good leader.”

It’s unlikely anyone in the region will disagree with that.


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