A tale of two cities – the big challenges facing the new Cambridgeshire and Peterborough metro mayor

The new mayor must offer a coherent plan to tackle the diverse needs of both cities in the region

Our 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 the areas such as housing, transport and skills, very different policies will be needed to ensure that both places (and the 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 £100million 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 – proposing 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.

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