By Aidan Van de Weyer, Liberal Democrat Prospective Mayor
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 5th August 2020.
In a few weeks, the government will announce plans for big changes to local government, encouraging all areas of the country to accept powerful mayors.
Here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, we already have one of these metro mayors – the first one not based on a big city. It’s not a way of running things that I like: do people in Peterborough want their affairs decided from Cambridge, or vice versa? But that doesn’t mean we can’t make it work well with the right leadership, by being transparent in all we do and cooperating closely with all residents.
Our mayor has responsibility for creating transport plans and speeding up the construction of affordable housing, as well as providing skills and training to support economic development. These are all things that can have a big and positive impact on all of our lives.
We can be most effective when we are all pushing in the same direction. This is the most important way in which the mayor can contribute: bringing people together around shared goals. This takes a lot of time and effort, but the results will be worth it.
There are some enormous transport projects being planned, costing hundreds of millions of pounds – billions in some cases. We need to get them right. That means building routes in the right places, enhancing the environment, and making alternatives to the car attractive. We cannot make those choices without the involvement of residents and businesses. The mayor is in a unique position to get the broad support required.
We are all now agreed on the urgency of tackling climate change, but there isn’t yet concerted and effective action across the whole area. We are going to have to make big changes to how we live: using less water, coping with extremes of weather, drastically cutting carbon emissions. While we already know a lot of what has to be done, we do need to have everyone on board. The combined authority is able to play a vital role in bringing people together and ensuring focus on action now.
One of the most acute problems that we have is the lack of homes that people can actually afford. The astonishing cost of buying a house here affects people’s lives in so many ways. People have to endure long and expensive commutes. Young people have to move away. Businesses find it hard to recruit. The mayor has been given £170 million to help get more affordable housing built. This can only be done by coordinating with district councils, housing associations, house builders.
The terrible impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be with us for years. The job prospects of young people are disappearing, creating a lost generation. Small business owners are struggling to keep going. More and more people are losing their jobs. As we rebuild the economy after the lockdown, the combined authority can use its responsibilities for skills, training and business support to great effect. The job market will be very different – even if we don’t know exactly how - and we must do all we can to enable training for young people especially, but also retraining at all stages of careers. The combined authority has the resources to shape the new world, investing in a green recovery and making sure jobs are less precarious.
In all of this, the mayor will be constantly working closely with residents, businesses and partner organisations, and therefore must have their trust. As a relatively new organisation, the combined authority is well placed to show how the Nolan principles of public life can be applied to local government. Everything we do must be as open as possible and we need to design ways of being accountable to the public, not just every four years at election time. This needs to be backed up by some really robust processes around all aspects of the work of the combined authority, from spending and procurement to staff appointments.
Like any big organisation, the combined authority will come in for criticism. How it responds is vital to giving people confidence, and it’s not clear that it has been so far. It must always take heed of feedback and address issues with care, as transparently as possible.
With all of the big issues under the control of the combined authority – transport, housing, economic – we need to be thinking long-term, 20 or 40 years ahead. We are currently dealing with choices made 20 years ago; choices we make now will be felt for decades to come. This is well beyond the period of office of any single politician. That is why it is vital that we work hard to create a shared vision for what we want.
Despite all the setbacks we are facing – from coronavirus to Brexit – Cambridgeshire has a bright future. Together, we can realise our full potential and make sure that all of our residents get the benefits.