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Government / Local politics

End of term report: How is James Palmer doing as mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough?

Continuing the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at James Palmer, Conservative mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

The collapse of the vast East Anglia devolution deal in November 2016 looked to have killed off devolution in the East of England. But a late push locally saw Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (C&P) announce a deal to set up a Combined Authority in March this year, ahead of the mayoral elections in May.

The rapid nature of this process meant that there was less time to prepare the ground politically and institutionally for the new metro mayor than in other city regions. As a result, the successful candidate James Palmer (previously Conservative leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council) is working with an entirely new political geography – which throws up a range of issues which some of his mayoral counterparts don’t face.

Six months into the job, we look at the challenges this poses for the new C&P mayor, and the progress he has made so far on achieving the objectives he set out upon taking office.

Progress and opportunities

To gauge Palmer’s headway so far, a good place to start is his ‘first 100 days’ strategy, which set out 32 priorities focused on transport, skills and housing. These included plans to explore options for a county-wide light rail scheme to link smaller towns into the jobs of Peterborough and Cambridge (which will report back in December), and for an underground transport system in Cambridge. They also included a pledge to launch new affordable housing schemes across the city regions.

These priorities reflect the need to deal with the costs of growth in the city region, such as high house prices (Cambridge is the third least affordable city in the UK), congestion, and economic disparities. And while many of Palmer’s ambitions are long-term projects which will take years, not months, to be completed, the new mayor has already made progress towards realising them. For example, he has launched feasibility studies into his transport ideas, and has announced 11 new housing schemes which will bring over 250 new affordable homes.

There is clearly much more to do to address housing and transport issues in the city region, but these steps indicate that Palmer recognises these problems and intends to tackle them. There is also a real opportunity for the mayor to use his strategic planning powers – which include oversight over a housing and infrastructure fund worth £100m, and the ability to implement a non-statutory spatial plan – to unlock more housing sites and transport.

Moreover, as a Conservative mayor for a city region which the National Infrastructure Commission has highlighted as strategically important, Palmer might expect to draw on government support as his feasibility plans become concrete proposals and plans. This theory will be put to the test if (and when) the government responds to his calls for greater Land Value Capture powers, and when the Department for Communities and Local Government makes a decision on C&P’s bid for £200m investment to build 7,600 homes in North Cambridge.


Toughest challenge

Geography is the main reason C&P stands out from the other areas electing a metro mayor in May. Largely rural, with two distinct and separate economies – Peterborough in the north and Cambridge in the south – the geography of the city region places unique demands on Mayor Palmer. Spending and policy geared to Peterborough will have little impact on (and may be potentially unsuited to) Cambridge, while those living in small towns or villages in rural areas may feel completely ignored. Making policy at the C&P level that works for everyone in the city region will therefore be a bigger challenge than in other places.

However, the strong economic performance of places across the area should make this a more manageable task than in more geographically coherent mayoral combined authorities which are less economically buoyant. Moreover, Palmer’s ambitions to improve transport connections between the north and south of C&P – and to better link people across the city region to jobs in Greater Cambridge – show that he is attempting to deal with the challenges that the city region’s unwieldy geography poses.

Biggest moment

The one institution that existed at the C&P geography before the combined authority was the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which in October had its funding frozen due to a National Audit Office investigation into its finances. Mayor Palmer responded to this development by writing an open letter to say that the LEP was causing reputational damage to the area and failing to represent or support local businesses. He also called for a new governance structure that would bring the LEP in house, to restore confidence and address some structural issues in the LEP.

This represented the most high profile moment in Palmer’s mayoralty thus far. More importantly, his call for the LEP to be integrated into the combined authority makes sense, as it would allow the mayor and LEP to work more strategically and coherently, while maintaining a strong voice for local businesses. Indeed, in other city regions such as Tees Valley and the West of England, the Combined Authorities have grown out of the LEPs, which are therefore highly integrated with the mayoralty. The resolution of issues with the LEP in C&P will have a significant impact on ensuring there is a shared, efficient and effective vision for the C&P economy in the coming years.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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