The Conservative candidate to become Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s first elected mayor wants to build an underground rail network under Cambridge.
James Palmer has also raised the prospect of reorganisation by speaking about a desire for powers and services to be devolved from Cambridgeshire CC to its five districts.
Currently leader of East Cambridgeshire DC, Cllr Palmer was selected by local Tory party members ahead of Huntingdonshire DC’s executive member for growth Roger Harrison and Cambridgeshire CC’s leader Steve Count, who was due to step down as chair of the combined authority yesterday.
In an interview with LGC, Cllr Palmer said his “key priorities” were to increase house building and improve the infrastructure between Peterborough and Cambridge, as well as within Cambridge.
He told LGC: “We have got to be visionary. I am looking at whether it’s possible to put an underground system through Cambridge and I want to exhaust every single opportunity for doing so.”
The chalk-based ground below Cambridge could be tunnelled through to make way for the system, said Cllr Palmer
“Obviously we won’t need anything like the underground system that London has which is fast and encompassing, but a relatively small underground system with light railway out into the county would help solve the [transport] problems,” said Cllr Palmer.
“We have one of the greatest science and university bases in the entire world and you can’t get around it. I want Cambridge to be the world centre for science technology and education, not just a centre, and if we’re serious about that then we’ve got to be serious about getting people in, out, and around our city in ways other than car and bus which have their limitations.”
While that is a long-term aim, Cllr Palmer also wants to address infrastructure “pinch points” across the county to try and improve travel times.
Five out of the seven councils in the region are Conservative-controlled meaning the Tory candidate will be the frontrunner to become mayor on 4 May.
Cllr Palmer thought his role as leader of a district council had enabled him to win widespread backing of party members across the region.
“What you will not get with me as mayor is a unitary Cambridgeshire,” said Cllr Palmer. “That will not happen. In fact I foresee the districts taking on services from the county…and the county becoming less of a force within the current structure.”
Cllr Palmer said he “can’t think of any service that can’t be devolved to the districts” other than adult social care. He added devolution was a “massive opportunity to save money” through public service reform.
“Obviously Peterborough is already a unitary but I would like Cambridgeshire’s districts to look at becoming mini Peterboroughs and not be sucked into a unitary Cambridgeshire which I do not think is the answer over a large rural area,” said Cllr Palmer.
The successful candidate will oversee the implementation of the region’s devolution deal which includes an investment fund worth up to £600m over 30 years and more control over skills and apprenticeship budgets.
One of the unique elements of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s devolution deal is a £70m pot of funding which has been ringfenced for use to build about 500 new council homes in Cambridge city over five years.
About £10m has been set aside to replace any of the homes which are subsequently sold through the right-to-buy scheme. A further £100m for affordable housing to be built across the region over five years is also included in the deal. The combined authority will be able to mix the type of tenures including affordable rented and low cost home ownership.
While he is “happy” with the devolution deal, Cllr Palmer said he would like to build on it in the future including looking at health, fire and police, and getting “extra funding” from government for improving infrastructure.
Labour’s candidate is due to be picked from Kevin Price, Cambridge City Council’s deputy leader, and Fiona Onasanya, a Cambridgeshire county councillor and deputy group leader, on 3 February.