There are rumours circulating in Whittlesey at the moment that the proposed bridge at Kings Dyke Crossing has been cancelled. I need to confirm that this is absolutely not the case and that work continues to progress. I also need to make a similar assurance to East Cambs residents about the Ely southern bypass.
This rumour comes about because of a radio interview last Tuesday between Paul Stainton of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and the Leader of the Lib Dem group at the County Council to do with the peer challenge that was held in Cambridgeshire County Council a few weeks ago. That peerchallenge was very complementary about us as a County Council, but inevitably raised a couple of concerns which I have discussed here.
The Lib Dem Leader's response to a question about what he would do about the cost of our ambitious capital programme was to suggest a rolling back of our plans. He spoke about supporting the proposed New Science Park Station on the edges of Cambridge and then said:
"other things like the crossing in Whittlesey and the Ely southern bypass are things that, yes, we would like to see happen, but if we haven't got the money for them we're just going to have to wait a bit longer to pay for it."
(You can listen again to this interview for the next few days here. This clip is about 1h 9minutes in. My response is about 2h 9mins in)
I suspect most of the Lib Dems in Cambridgeshire have never spoken to a Whittlesey resident about Kings Dyke, otherwise they would not have suggested it was something that we "would like to see happen" - it is something residents have been asking for for over forty years and has become a necessity because of the increased time that the Wash Road is flooded and because of the ever increasing levels of freight using the railway (the amount of rail traffic is scheduled to increase by about 155% because of the Felixtowe to Nuneaton Rail upgrade).
I said on my blog that we would need to review the capital programme after we have had a decision from Government about the City Deal. However, my preferred approach would not be an immediate "slash and burn" and we are already looking at different, more imaginative, ways of dealing with our problems:
1. Schools capital. By far the biggest part of our capital spend is on providing new school places to cope with the growing population in Cambridgeshire. Currently the majority of funding for this comes from a combination of Government and developer contributions, but 20% comes from Cambridgeshire County Council capital funding. Last week David Laws MP, the new schools Minister confirmed at a Local Government Association councillors' forum that Department for Education had done a deal with treasury that gave them funding up until 2021 for new school places, based on an assumption that local authorities would no longer have to contribute from their own pockets - in recognition of the fact that Councils are already financially strapped for cash. The County Council are currently exploring this with the Government. If it proves accurate it will have a huge positive impact on our proposed capital spend profile. On top of that I have also asked for some work to be done to look at other local authorities who have driven down the cost of providing new school places (I need to stress that this is not me saying we should not provide necessary school places - but that we need to ensure we are not paying too much for them).
2. Cost of borrowing. Currently, when Councils borrow money they do so through the Public Works Loan Board at preferential rates. However, there is a view that local authorities could work together to find other ways of borrowing money that are potentially even cheaper (without increasing the level of risk). We are currently working with a number of other local government partners to look at how this might work.
3. Driving down cost. As we move forward with capital projects, one of the things the County Council does is "value engineering". Current estimates in the capital programme are, largely, based on comparisons with the cost of similar projects elsewhere. As we move closer and start doing more in depth analysis, we often find ways of reducing costs by taking out unnecessary work. One of the things we must do is be more robust in this and ensure we are not delivering work that is of a higher spec than necessary.
4. Government funding. Increasingly we are seeing signs that Government understand the negative impact that poor infrastructure has on economic growth. That is why they have agreed to sort out the A14 and it is their justification for HS2. The more ready we are to deliver improvements to our infrastructure (i.e. the better worked up our business case), the more we are likely to find ways of attracting funding from outside of the County Council to drive down costs of borrowing. As an example, Kings Dyke Bridge has an estimated cost, at the moment, of £15m, much of that is coming from sources other than the County Council.
The reality is that the combination of those things could have a massive positive effect on our capital programme without resorting to the "slash and burn" approach that the County Lib Dems seem to be proposing.
There is another factor here. Increasingly as a Council we are fincially incentivised to deliver economic growth (moving from grant funding to allowing us to retain business rates is one way that has happened). The initial feasibility report into Kings Dyke Crossing showed (without even factoring in the impact of the rail upgrade and the increased flood risk mentioned above) "a bridge to replace and close the existing King’s Dyke level crossing offers very good (high to very high) value for money and would be a financially worthwhile scheme". I am not sure that sort of analysis justifies the scheme as simply a "like".
I would make the same case about the Ely southern bypass. We are, quite rightly, putting a huge amount of effort into the City Deal - which is about working with local partners and Government to drive the unique and powerful economy of the Greater Cambridge area forwards; that economy does not deliver enough because it is constrained by poor transport infrastructure. One thing we must also try to do is expand that unique Cambridge economy further - to increase its spread. The Alconbury Weald Enterprise Zone, alongside the A14 upgrade, gives us the potential to spread that economy to Huntingdonshire (and potentially Peterborough), the Ely southern bypass gives us the opportunity to spread it to East Cambridgeshire. Not only will the County and District Councils benefit from that financially, it will also open up a whole new range of employment opportunities to residents to other areas like Fenland, Peterborough (and indeed beyond).
That sort of thinking around economic growth is important. They are things that we need to make happen - because they are right financially and because, of course, we don't just serve ourselves as a County Council, but serve the people of Cambridgeshire. It is true that we sometimes have to make tough decisions, and it is true that we may have to make some around our capital programme (if we cannot find other ways of driving down cost). But, there is far, far more work that needs to be done before we start taking a blinkered "slash and burn" approach.
It is worth saying that whilst the peer review did raise concerns about our capital programme, but it also said that Cambridgeshire County Council had a "strong and impressive ambition". Should we be reacting to one concern by eliminating the positives?
Meanwhile, please be assured there is no slow up in the move towards a Kings Dyke bridge or an Ely southern bypass.