Home Page Borough's failure to support railway idea reveals its priorities 27/09/13

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

For a project which, we are told, has absolutely no chance of ever coming into existence, the railway renewal idea has certainly stirred up plenty of concern.

I imagine a lot of people found it quite a jaw-dropping moment to discover that our own borough council (supposedly) was opposing an idea which, however Quixotic, would be of undeniable benefit to the town if it ever, by some miraculous turn of events, were to actually come to pass.

It’s all very well to disbelieve something like that but it’s another whole step to start objecting to it and, for all St Edmundsbury’s ambivalent relationship with Haverhill, I never thought we would actually see that stage reached.

So the biggest question which rears its head is why? It’s not as if the project – if such a distant idea can even be dignified with such a concrete name – would be down to St Edmundsbury, or even Suffolk, to fund.

Nearly all of its length would be in Cambridgeshire, the traffic on the A1307 is a Cambridgeshire problem, and the solution, whatever it is, will be a Cambridgeshire solution. St Edmundsbury has no real need to respond to Cambridgeshire’s draft transport strategy, and maybe, in the normal course of events, it might not have done.

However, there are some particular interests involved at present, and by analysing them we can start to get an insight into St Edmundsbury’s priorities.

First, there is Vision 2031. A lot of resources have been devoted to this heap of paper, and it does not mention any sort of High Quality Passenger Transport (HQPT) for the A1307, just a bit of road improvement and a few more buses.

So officers who have created Vision 2031 would be unlikely to support anything which might lead to such a big re-write. It would delay matters, and that is unacceptable. The reason it is unacceptable is that Vision 2031 is being rushed through for a particular purpose – to protect St Edmundsbury against the developers.

Government policies are relaxing all the time towards developers and those in power in St Edmundsbury, who come mostly from the rural wards, are extremely concerned for their own and their electors’ environment. When the draft Vision 2031 was launched in the summer it was clear its main function was seen as protecting St Edmundsbury’s countryside.

So a delay of maybe two or three years, because planning moves so slowly, could be very significant. It isn’t just a railway we are talking about, but a fast-track connection of some kind linking Haverhill to the wider world. That would have huge implications. By 2031 Haverhill might be nearly as big as Bury, so its infrastructure would then be the only difference between them in economic terms.

Haverhill’s integration with the Cambridge economy is the elephant in the room in Ipswich and in Bury when it comes to policies around the west of the county. It isn’t spoken about, and it hasn’t quite happened yet, but it is the bogeyman which could one day catapult Haverhill to greater prominence than its neighbours.

You will notice St Edmundsbury’s officers are not convinced that there are that many people travelling from Haverhill to Cambridge to work. Have they never been here at 8am? Do they know nothing of the plans of Addenbrooke’s, Astra Zenica, etc? They are waiting for the results of the 2011 census to tell them the obvious, even though it will by then be three years out of date.

But there is another interest at work in St Edmundsbury. It was curious that the borough should go to the extent of criticising a neighbouring authority’s idea – just an idea, mind – an option - nothing like a proposal. It is described as ‘very ambitious’ and its wider implications are pursued in a negative manner.

Cambridgeshire never mentioned any idea of going on beyond Haverhill, so why should St Edmundsbury address that issue? Their line on the map stops at Haverhill. Any extension to Sudbury would be in Suffolk and there seems no prospect of that at all.

So why are the interests of the villages around Clare suddenly brought into the debate? South Cambridgeshire villages probably aren’t too keen on the A1307 being dualled through the middle of them as St Edmundsbury seem to favour. A light railway or guided busway might be preferable to them.

But any such idea cannot be supported, St Edmundsbury says, because people in Clare, Stoke by Clare, etc would have their quality of life damaged by a railway. How did we make this huge leap? And how did their interests vault ahead of those of Haverhill?

As for the presence of Haverhill councillors in the formulation of this response to Cambridgeshire’s ideas, one may be speechless, but scarcely surprised, sadly.

They are part of the St Edmundsbury establishment, probably part of the political core group which indicated in advance to officers what sort of response they would like to see. They were operating within the remit of the borough’s new portfolio holder for economic development, who happens to represent Clare.

They are far, far too easily persuaded of the merit of the St Edmundsbury argument, or the Suffolk argument on almost anything.

But above all, I sense, maybe erroneously, that all the Suffolk establishments are just so jealous of the advanced thinking which Cambridgeshire produces, of the wider horizons, the bigger budgets drawn in by economic success and Government favour, and the sheer professionalism and, yes, ambition, that it displays, that they will do anything to prevent any of that seeping over the border into Haverhill.

But I have news for them. They are like King Canute - except that, unlike that wise and skilful monarch, they really believe they can stem the tide.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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