CPCA Mayoralty: Spires ‘N’ Shires

By Paddy Kent

Like other combined authority areas, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA), will be holding a Mayoral election this May. The Mayor has big responsibilities relevant to this audience – affordable housing delivery, economic growth, strategic transport planning.

The incumbent Mayor James Palmer is a certainly a politician of interest. He knows that Metro Mayors need to be seen as relevant, and he’s certainly press worthy. He has personality in bags. Mayor Palmer will face his biggest challenge from Liberal Democrat Councillor Aidan van der Weyer, the current Deputy Leader of South Cambridgeshire. 

The place

The Mayor of the CPCA represents Cambridge, Peterborough and four other districts.

Historic Cambridge is a well-known, lovely city, with a thriving, if undiversified, economy. It has one of the highest house-price-to-earnings multiples (x13) in the country, its growth constrained by tight administrative boundaries and green belt on all sides. Its housing need has been largely met by developing new settlements well outside the city – the latest 25,000 home plan came out the blue in December. Cambridge is the UK’s cycling capital, but congestion in Cambridge is a major issue and one that Mayor has a plan to solve. The main solution is the CAM, light rail system linking Cambridge to a number of surrounding towns and villages, also chimes nicely with the current ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

The other city, Peterborough has its challenges, but the opening in 2022 of a new University to be based in the city is one that the Mayor has been keen to shout about. 

Fenland, Huntingdonshire, East Cambridgeshire are largely Tory rural districts with market towns. South Cambs is somewhat different, acting as a donut around Cambridge and since 2018, controlled by the Liberal Democrats. 

The issues

Mayor Palmer was elected on a manifesto to deliver 2,000 affordable homes using £100m of central government funding, £100k homes and a light rail system. How is he getting on?

The £100k home scheme is going well – completions have occurred. The scheme has unsurprisingly grabbed headlines in a county with high house prices. The first homes, in Fordham, are being built out and some occupied. The buyer benefits from rises or falls in local property values, but this is indexed to the original purchase value of £100k. There were apparently 147 eligible applicants (live or work locally) for just 8 available homes. These statistics are being used by the Mayor to show firstly support for the scheme and secondly to demonstrate the demand for, and justification of future schemes.

But some, admittedly those with a close interest in the housing market, are underwhelmed. Who are the homes for and is the public subsidy a good use of public money? These homes are flats with a market value of around £150k. Suddenly the offer seems less generous and akin to shared ownership. Whilst unlike shared ownership there’s no rent to pay, there is also no opportunity to acquire a home that could later be freely traded at market value. However, the Mayor seems to have decided it’s a vote winner – earlier this week he announced a new £100k home scheme in Cambridge, with three homes for completion March 2022. 

However, the headlines in the electoral race are currently being grabbed by the Mayor’s relationship with MHCLG. Last year they aimed their fire at the CPCA’s governance arrangements, now it’s affordable housing delivery.

The dispute is all about the CPCA’s delivery of additional affordable homes using £100m of government funding. The Mayor says his target was 2,000 starts by March 2022. However, with four years down and one to go, 849 starts have begun, and of these MHCLG says 243 aren’t truly additional, as the CPCA delivered only flood remediation funding at a parcel at Northstowe. The CPCA has snapped back that its business case said any grant it provided would count towards its delivery.

More generally, the MHCLG has written to the CPCA – ‘insufficient progress’, ‘value for money being achieved is below our expectations’ – it all sounds fairly terse. And it’s not just hot air, the outcome of this for the Mayor is that the remaining £45m in funding has been paused, subject to the two bodies discussing further what it will deliver. What makes this spat particularly interesting is that it’s a somewhat rare blue-on-blue affair.

Councillor Van der Weyer has jumped on the MHCLG’s intervention, calling it ‘disastrous news’ and the Mayor ‘incompetent’ and ‘arrogant’. The Mayor has been fairly bullish, saying MHCLG has been slow and doesn’t grasp the scale of the problem. He says voters don’t care for the details of funding agreements, but primarily on the number of homes delivered.

Meanwhile, the Mayor Palmer’s transport solution is the hugely ambitious Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro (CAM). Just last week, the Mayor announced a new CEO for the delivery body, published three different concept documents and a new (vision) network route map showing extensions to Peterborough and Chatteris.

Councillor Van der Weyer hasn’t called for the cancellation of the project outright, instead preferring to talk about the need to deliver for short- and medium-term projects.

Whilst Cambridge’s green belt continues to be sacrosanct, its housing needs will continue to be met through new settlements and urban extensions in the surrounding towns and villages. This, along with the intrinsic sustainability benefits, means that the CAM is popular with many in the development sector.

But critics have pointed out that the latest Concept designs seems akin to a bus, others have focused on the details of the route, the cost, that it’s undeliverable. That last point is a real challenge for the Mayor to counter. We know that even by the next Mayoral election, in 2025, the start of construction of the CAM may still be years off.

The Mayor is under fire in many directions. What influences voters’ choices in local elections is always hard to predict, it varies from place to place, voter to vote. This year’s election will be unlike no other. The outcome in Cambridgeshire will be one to watch.