Upgrading the A14 was debated at Cambridgeshire County Council on the 16th of July 2013.
The A14, particularly between Cambridge and the A1(M) is a highly congested and dangerous stretch of road. Incidents, which occur almost every day, result in unreliable journey times as well as injuries and deaths. Addressing the problem is crucial to enabling Cambridge to make the contribution it has the potential to be making to the national economy and the well-being of the UK and the world.
Upgrading the road is also a pre-requisite for building the new town of Northstowe. I’m personally not keen on the new town, but it certainly cannot be built with the A14 in its current state.
The current £1.5bn scheme for upgrading the A14 announced by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander on the 27th of June 2013 is to be funded in part by tolling as well as contribution from local councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership.
Scant details of the proposals are yet available. A Parliamentary answer from the 8th of July 2013 revealed that even details such as which stretch of the A14 will be tolled, and which route a new road would take, are yet to be decided. A further announcement is promised in Autumn 2013.
Details on where funding is to come from, and who is being asked to pay what share are as yet incomplete, and I don’t think the information that is available can be found in one place. The Local Enterprise Partnership has committed £50m of future business rate receipts, Cambridgeshire County Council were discussing a £25m contribution, and Cambridge City Council had been asked for £5m. It has been reported that local sources are being asked to find £100m of the £1.5bn cost. Cllr Curtis has stated £300m of the funding will come from tolls. (Raising the question of if the toll be lifted once £300m has been collected?).
My view is that the road ought be funded by central government out of general taxation (I’d like a Government that wasn’t borrowing £1 of every £5 it spends, a government that was spending within its means, from taxation.). Major infrastructure like trunk roads are a central government responsibility. The case ought be made that the Cambridge area is a smart place for the government to be investing if it wants to support the national economy and increase tax revenues and boost the economy nationally.
I oppose tolling on the grounds of restricting freedom to travel, increased monitoring of who is travelling where, and the fact tolls are a tax which hit the poorest hardest. I can see a case for a toll being permitted for a new, privately funded, bridge or tunnel which would not otherwise be built, but think it is wrong that a taxpayer funded road ought be tolled, especially a road which substantially already exists (although a new stretch to avoid the crumbling Huntingdon flyover is likely).
Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Martin Curtis (Whittlesey North, Conservative) made a speech at the 16th of July 2013 full council meeting which had me reconsidering my view on funding from local government. Cllr Curtis argued that that extra business rates generated, and brought into the council, would more than cover what the council was being asked to pay. In such a case investing the money appears to be a “no-brainer”, however it’s not that simple, and Cllr Curtis hasn’t as far as I’m aware published the basis of his assertions. Where is it proposed the cash will come from? When will the council(s) have to pay their contributions, how much will they be asked for up-front?
Is the business case for the A14 upgrade so good that the council could get a bank to lend it the money, secured only on future business rates, on yet to be created hereditaments?
Even if it was we wouldn’t want councils going to a bank and paying hefty amounts of interest, we’d want local government to borrow from central government. My question is can local government cover their contribution via such a risk free deal with central government – promising them a cut of any future uplift in business rates?
The key question is where the financial risk sits. My view is it should not sit with local government, which is not as well placed as central government to detach that financial risk from a real risk to critical public services such as caring for the elderly.
There is a problem with the reliance on an uplift in business rate income arising from the project to pay for the scheme. Central government is changing how local government is funded, and locally retained business rates is to be a core part of local government funding, in place of money which would previously have been collected locally, sent to London, and paid back again. The new system is better, however the business rate income is not a new bonus pot of gold, it is a replacement for the government grant. The uplift is extra money, but a region with more businesses and homes requires more services from its councils.
The A14 funding debate highlights the fact the Local Enterprise Partnership, is spending money raised through taxes, though it is an unelected undemocratic body meeting and taking decisions in secret behind closed doors. The LEP have astonishingly for a body receiving, and taking decisions on spending, many millions of pounds of tax revenues, stated:
Our LEP is business led, and a business approach to Board meetings is to hold them in private … Our meetings will be held at business premises and these venues do not lend themselves to open public meetings. We also want to engender a true business way of working, to ensure open and frank discussions can take place on a range of issues, which could be constrained by public meetings.
UKIP raised the question of a referendum on the A14 and other major infrastructure projects. My view is that representative democracy is a good system, we elect people whose judgement we trust, and let them get on with it, they can put the time in getting to grips with the detail and make, and justify, their decisions. I think representative democracy produces better informed, more rational, decision making than direct democracy. Referenda ought be restricted to fundamental changes to the way in which we are governed, for example if giving more power to Europe, or moving to one council for Greater Cambridge.
I disagree with Cllr Curtis’ argument for councillors making decisions, what is they have “access to the detail” on the grounds everyone ought have access to the information on which councillors base their decisions. My support for representative rather than direct democracy is based on not everyone being expected to put in the time and effort needed to educate themselves to the required degree on the background to every decision to be in a position to take a view on it themselves, rather than access to information.
Cambridgeshire County Council state “current modelling shows that the improved A14 will reduce traffic levels in Cambridge”. I would like to see this work published, but can imagine how if the A14 was more reliable people would use it, and the M11 to travel around the city rather than through it. I would like to see traffic encouraged to drive around, rather than through the centre of, Cambridge. I would hope that this argument could be made to the small number of highly influential Liberal Democrats who oppose the A14 improvements on the grounds of a fear that improved roads attract more traffic and some of that traffic will end up in central Cambridge.
Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council Martin Curtis’ Speech
Thank you chairman.
I just want to deal first of all with a couple of things that have been raised which I want to bring a bit of clarity over.
The first one, the point about the LEP contribution. Please be aware the LEP is contributing more than the county council is to the project. Twice as much as the county council is. Because the LEP recognises the business benefits and the economic advantages to Cambridgeshire of delivering this over twenty five…. of delivering this improvement.
[Chair interjects: "Turn your microphone on"]
That would help wouldn’t it.
The second thing is about affordability. Can we afford to do this? We can’t afford not to do it. That’s the point. This is the point about why this is different now to history. We are now in this council and in other councils, we are incentivised to develop and grow business. We are incentivised financially though business rate retention. We will benefit far more from developing business and the economic development that the A14 will bring than the £25m it will cost us. Please be in no doubt about it, that is absolutely the case.
But the other point is having had a motion in March which helped inform the Government to make these decisions to support the A14 and then going back and saying “Whoops we’ve changed our mind”. What sort of impact do you think that have on the Government, on the city deal. We are being complemented time and time again for our ability to work with other councils, other authorities, which deliver and our reputation and commitment to major infrastructure projects, this throws that reputation straight out the window. Absolutely straight out the window. It threatens our ability to bring business in, it threatens the city deal, have no doubt about it. OK. Because of the reputation we have developed. It’s something Nick Boles said to us when he visited: “How come you are able to do this in Cambridgeshire when others can’t elsewhere?” That is what he has said. And so this will help the Cambridgeshire economy in a big way. Please let’s not forget that.
However lets go on to the human side as well. Nine hundred and five casualties, that is a casualty every two days on the A14. OK. A number of them people will be Cambridgeshire residents, a huge number, the notion that Cambridgeshire residents don’t use the A14. There are thousands and thousands, I can’t remember the exact numbers, of residents who go past Bar Hill every day that originate their journey in Cambridge City. It absolutely is the case Cambridge residents use this.
Now lets go on to the referendum business. The notion that you can do an online poll in any sense that has any inkling of democratic accountability is a fallacy. It absolutely does not. Let’s just look at it because it costs four hundred and ninety eight thousand pounds for a referendum. These are the projects I am told are strictly speaking should be Government funded: Kings Dyke Rail Crossing, Foxton Rail Crossing, A14 upgrade, Soham Railway Station, New Science Park Station. OK now let’s go onto two really important ones for a number of people in this chamber: the A47 upgrade, it is a trunk road, I want to make the point that we’re committed to looking at similar arrangements when the A47 comes forward. Wisbech rail is another national project; not ours OK.
Wisbech members sat there [gesturing to UKIP benches] please be in absolutely no doubt that if this motion is carried today you are adding half a million pound cost to the A47 upgrade, you have added a half a million pound cost to the Wisbech rail project, that makes both of those projects half a million pounds less likely to be delivered.
When I met Nick Clegg to talk about the city deal, with the other city deal bidders I made a point to him about our vision because he was complementary to us because of the county’s commitment to the city deal. The A14 is intrinsically linked to that and the point I made to him was that my vision for the city deal is that it deals with a massive infrastructure deficit around the Cambridge city area and my vision is to use future bids, future opportunities, to see that benefit radiate out across the county and beyond and that sort of vision is what we need to focus on, not looking at a small amount of money that we will be paid back in …. in … millions in future years if we contribute. That is the point about why this matters for Cambridgeshire and spending half a million pounds or more on a referendum actually when you will never ever get the detail of this project across to the electorate, that’s why we’re in power to make decisions, because we have access to the detail. That’s a point. We must, must, oppose this motion.
During the debate UKIP pointed out that the “half a million pound” cost was for a stand alone referendum, and the costs are much reduced one is held alongside an election, a number of which are forthcoming.
- Cambridgeshire County Council webpage on A14 Improvements – updated April 2013
- Statement including £1.5bn scheme for A14 by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander in the House of Commons on the 27th of June 2013
- Question by Cambridge MP Julian Huppert asking:
Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether it will be a toll road? I certainly hope that it will not be.
The response from Danny Alexander was:
The road will be taken forward according to the plans set out previously. That will include some tolling for new capacity.
- A14 upgrade helps ensure a positive future for Cambridgeshire – Blog post by Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Martin Curtis – 14 July 2013.
- UKIP motion to 16 July 2013 Cambridgeshire County Council Full Council – proposing referendum on major infrastructure projects.
- Transcript by New Listener of radio debate on A14 following the 16 July 2013 full council, featuring UKIP leader Peter Reeve and Cllr Curtis.
I have also written about UKIP Cllr Gordon Gillick’s bizarre contribution to the debate and have placed a video of Independent Councillor John Hipkin’s speech online too.
Related Previous Articles
- Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner – A14 – my suggestions on what our Police and Crime Commissioner ought do in relation to the A14.
- Partisan Bickering on the A14 Prompts Me to Comment – June 2012
- Cambridge Liberal Democrats Oppose A14 Improvements – December 2008 but still all pertinent
- Vision for Cambridge 2020 – Includes discussion of the A14