Politicians don’t like to admit to U-turns. It’s very un-sexy: journalists tend to pounce whenever they can, so no chance of a grown-ups’ debate or airing of policy options in an intelligent way for public consumption. Which means that once a course is selected, it’s very difficult to change, even if they know it won’t produce the desired effect. So – let’s whisper it quietly – ‘we can’t go on building more and more roads to solve the problem of traffic congestion, because more roads, create more traffic, and what’s more, we have the evidence to prove it’.
‘Yes, but what’s this gotta do with Cambridgeshire transport?’ Well, there was this Government which had been in power for absolutely ages, they were getting loads of stick about traffic congestion; something had to be done – marginal constituencies and all that – so they bowed to the road lobby; and in the early nineties – that’s the 1990s – they launched a major roads programme called ‘Roads to Prosperity’ committing an extra £12 billion construction programme, only to finally realise just a few years later that this was not the answer, indeed it was – hush – part of the problem. Oops! So, it was scaled down – a bit; a few cancellations; a few temporary postponements; call for more studies – you know the sort of thing! Cambridgeshire and the A14 would have to muddle along. Meanwhile, local authorities were being directed to consider the traffic implications of new developments, to resist the growth of out of town shopping centres, etc., and where possible to ensure major traffic generating developments were located on public transport corridors.
In May 1997 the incoming new Labour administration (or should that be new New Labour administration?) promised that transport and traffic congestion would be high on its agenda. It would introduce an Integrated Transport Strategy linking all the elements of transport policy. NICE! So the Trunk Roads Review, announced last autumn, deferred a decision on the A14, and instead called for – wait for it – a new study. Therefore no brownie points from the vociferous GUAM. (GUAM? Give Us A Motorway.) The reasoning behind this was that they wanted to introduce their Integrated Transport Plan – something that the environmental lobby had been calling for since the seventies (that’s the 1970s although it feels like the 1870s). It just so happens that this particular stretch of A14 has an unused railway parallel to it, which, if reinstated, would provide part of the solution. The reopening of the Cambridge-St Ives railway was very close to being given the go ahead, when the rail privatisation programme began and the project was consequently lost.
So, where are we now? Well, the Highways Agency (HA) now has a clear remit to ensure that best use is being made of the existing road network; there is little spending priority for new roads. They also have to play their part in developing the Integrated Transport Plan with other players – Railtrack plc, public transport operators, local authorities, etc. To this end they have, as part of their A14 Route Management Strategy, consulted with ‘stakeholders.’ A series of possible solutions was proposed and these are now being evaluated. Some of the proposed solutions fall entirely within the responsibilities of the HA, and it is on these that most progress has been made so far. It is still far from clear how the, multi-agency or partnership, proposals made will be progressed by the HA and with what degree of urgency. This will, we believe, be the true test of whether an Integrated Transport Strategy really does exist in a practical way, and whether it can pull together the policies and solutions that are urgently needed.
After an intensive three month campaign, which included significant exposure in every issue, the Cambridge Evening News secured 10,000 signatures calling for something to be done. This has helped put the Multi-Modal Study high on the agenda in Westminster. Mr Andrew Lansley MP (South Cambridgeshire) secured an Adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 16 December last year. (the Hansard record is available on http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199899/cmhansrd/vo981216/debtext/81216-46.htm#81216-46_head2 ) We should hear in the next few weeks when the Multi-Modal Study will start – it will probably take 18 months. If you have a contribution to make (and why not – GUAM certainly will) now is the time to start planning, researching and developing your ideas for submission.