Why did Cambridgeshire County Council reject the Six Mile Bottom Light Railway plan in February 2003?

Speculative proposals were submitted by James A. Quinlan & Associates on behalf of a consortium of landowners, but were rejected following their presentation to the Examination in Public of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Structure Plan in late 2002.

I raised the issue of digitising past historical council documents at the Full Council meeting of 21 Oct 2021 at Cambridge Guildhall, which also saw the city council testing out a long-awaited AV system in the council chamber…although the lighting and camera angle makes me look like I’ve gone bald on top!

Above – from Full Council (papers here).

Cllr Katie Thornburrow responding noted that having digitised copies online makes it easier for her and her staff to work more efficiently having such historical documents to hand – along with summaries and analysis by historians, writers, and other academics (whether me or others).

In previous local plans Cambridge City Council has digitised a number of past documents. But it has zapped the file tree so unless somehow you can locate the exact URL for the document you want, you’re stuck for now. They were all previously at https://files.cambridge.gov.uk/public/ldf/coredocs/ – which indicates the Local Development Framework of times gone by. You can even find old documents such as this from 2005 -> https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/media/1757/local-development-scheme-2007.pdf – the scheme covering 2004-07 but that came into effect in 2005. There are a number of places that seem to store long-lost documents going back 20 years or more. The old Sustainable Development Commission with their 2006 report on South Cambridgeshire is one – see http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/data/files/publications/BHCC-Paper4-Cambridgeshire.pdf

It’s not just planning and transport. Cambridgeshire Insight, the online statistical and knowledge hub for our county also has a hist of things published but little known – such as the 2010 Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. But such are the changes ministers keep making to names and acronyms it’s hard for anyone to keep up with who is doing what, or which are the reports and documents we should be concerned about.

Also, talking of online access, Cambridge City Council’s wifi (that’s also used for the Lion Yard) for some reason won’t load my blog https://cambridgetownowl.com/ but it will open the admin pages behind it. Which makes no sense to me.

“Why did the structure plan people reject light rail in 2002/03?”

The first thing to look at is what was proposed and where I found it. It started with an examination of past proposals for the Cambridge airport site.

This is the LDA Design proposal for the redevelopment of Marshall’s Airport. Long-speculated, it was only going to be a matter of time before the company cashed in on one of the largest and most valuable pieces of land in Cambridge – hence Cambridge City & South Cambridgeshire District Councils examining possibilities for the site for years. This is from 2005:

Above – outline ideas from Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire’s Eastern Area Action Plan November 2005.

Click on the link above to read the 200page plan.

The phrase “Rapid Transit” came up again and again. I wondered why the airport site made no mention of light rail. So I looked up Light Rail in the library catalogue. This was where I found the Quinlan proposals.

In the proposals, the consortium make a series of bold claims. At the same time they were dealing with the recently-privatised railway company called Railtrack. If you thought Network Rail was bad, Railtrack was worse. Transport writer Christian Wolmar wrote this about Railtrack in 2005 after two high profile accidents – Hatfield & Potters Bar. That’s on top of the botched privatisation by John Major’s Conservative government, squandering even more public money. This from 1999

Then there were the fortunes being made by the rolling stock companies, bleeding the rail network dry.

Above – from the RMT Union which has been campaigning on this waste of public money for the past quarter of a century. See any of their articles that come back from online searches for RMT and ROSCO.

Yet the speculative proposals for the light railway went ahead to the Examination in Public Stage – which made more people aware.

In principle, this above plan is similar to what Dr Colin Harris proposed over a decade later with Connect Cambridge.

The Cambridge to Huntingdon Multi-Modal Study – CHUMMS

This, along with the ambiguous phase ‘rapid transit’ come up again and again. When I started working in the Civil Service as a junior admin officer, I remember lots of senior-looking-types going into meetings about CHUMMS and doing lots of talking. It was only later on did I find out this was all related to central government wanting to find somewhere to test out a guided busway. Which is how Cambridgeshire ended up with it – The Department for Transport offered a lump sum, and the county council accepted. That was just the start of the trouble! The legal action some 20 years later is still ongoing between the county council and the main contractor BAM Nuttall. Furthermore, Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) recently took the bus from Cambridge to Huntingdon to see if the journey had gotten better over the past century or so. You can read how she got on via her blog here.

“Where did the busways concept come from?”

At the moment I’ve not identified the point at which senior decision-makers from Whitehall, the county council, The University of Cambridge, and others sat down and rubber stamped the busways concept. Nearly 20 years later it feels that the Greater Cambridge Partnership is still running with a busways vision (that has never been promoted as a sub-region-wide transport solution to the public) even though if given the chance I think a light railway with a central tunnel under Cambridge would be a far more popular and far more efficient alternative.

The vision document appears to be the Cambridge Futures study 1999-2003.

Above – this was the document I waved at councillors during my PQ in the video up top.

Above – you can find the full report in the Cambridgeshire Collection using the details above.

The extended option from 2003 is revealing.

Above – the extended proposals from Cambridge Futures in the Cambridgeshire Collection. You can see it incorporates what we now call the Cambridge Guided Busway – but back then given the bland acronym name that does not indicate technology. In the end we got the most polluting one – diesel buses.

We also know that the authors of this report (overwhelmingly male make-up of the team is excruciating to read today) only did a very limited amount of historical research before putting these proposals together. You see that guided busway flyover across the River Cam at Stourbridge Common? Holford and Wright tried that one…they didn’t get far.

Above – Holford and Wright’s abandoned proposals for a dual carriageway flyover that would have lined Newmarket Road with Milton Road to create the Eastern Ring Road for Cambridge. (From Holford & Wright’s Cambridge Development Plan 1950 – the map originates from wartime, so W.D. means “War Department”. Also note the eastern exit at Cambridge Railway Station at the bottom left. We’re still waiting 75 years later.)

Conceptually, the 2003 Cambridge Futures document incorporates the then proposed housing developments…

Above – from 2003, fast forward to 2021 and Trumpington south of Long Road (Clay Farm / Great Kneighton) is nearly complete, West Cambridge continues with people already moving in but the University dragging its heels on the Swimming Pool that they promised, part of the developments on the edge of the airport are ready to go with the airport site itself lined up for the next local planning period, as is the Sewage Works Site as it becomes the North East Cambridge area.

You could say as always, we get the houses but not nearly enough of the community and leisure facilities and nowhere near enough of the transport infrastructure.

Quinlan and Associates scathing of buses and busways

They did not pull their punches in their masterplan – again from the Cambridgeshire Collection. It’s worth a visit if only to read the chapter on transport!

To put it bluntly, Cambridge needs a mass transit system that people on low incomes can easily afford that wealthy people would choose instead of a motor car.

Hence my support for the Cambridge Connect project.

“But why did the county council reject it?”

Essentially the evidence base was not strong enough.

It’s worth reading the paragraphs on Cambridge Heath (i.e. Six Mile Bottom) from page 145 of the County Council’s report here.

The County Council didn’t pull its punches either:

“In the County Council’s assessment Cambridge Heath was discounted at the first stage of selection. Its principle weaknesses were: distance from Cambridge; no brownfield land; doubts about the viability of high quality public transport; location in relation to meeting the Sub-Region’s housing needs; the likelihood of unsustainable road-based out-commuting; and concerns about landscape suitability and the presence of a groundwater protection zone”

CambsCC Para 9.64, 2003.

Furthermore, the Strategic Rail Authority at 9.68 confirmed there was no funding from them to subsidise the proposals either. In the end they decided the drawbacks were so great that Northstowe made for a better alternative.

The proposal at Six Mile Bottom has come back in an amended form in the emerging local plan, but has not been selected in the first round of sites. It remains to be seen if the land owners decide to push the case again.

Thank you once again to the Cambridgeshire Collection. Click here to arrange a visit so you can see the full original maps and proposals. Also ask about how you and the general public can provide more support for our local libraries and archives. (Otherwise as we’ve seen here we risk repeating past historical errors!)

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in the history of Cambridge the town and the people who made our modern city, please support my research in bringing their records of achievement to wider audiences. Click here if you would like to make a donation or take out a small subscription to support my ongoing work.

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