REVEALED: Rift between Cambridgeshire chamber of commerce boss John Bridge and Mayor James Palmer over Wisbech to March rail link
PUBLISHED: 16:52 22 July 2017 | UPDATED: 22:05 22 July 2017
One of Cambridgeshire’s most influential business leaders –chamber of commerce chief executive John Bridge – claims that re-opening of the Wisbech to March rail link is a lame duck.
Mr Bridge, also a senior member of the Government funded Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) believes that it is economically unviable and is not deliverable.
His comments – aired in a BBC interview– were immediately criticised by recently elected Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor James Palmer.
One of Mayor Palmer’s first actions on taking office was to fund the £3.2 million Grip 3 study needed to progress the rail opening – a project the LEP had declined pending more detailed information.
Mayor Palmer said he was “astounded” when he first heard of the criticism by Mr Bridge “and I went to see him and told him how naïve I thought he was”.
Mr Bridge, the chamber’s chief executive since 2004 and formerly managing director of a haulage company and chairman of the Road Haulage Association, said: “Certainly we do not believe developing the railway line from Wisbech to March is going to have economic benefit nor is it deliverable.”
He expressed surprise at Mayor Palmer’s first 100 day programme of projects he would fund since he would have expected many of these to have been discussed first with the business community and with the LEP.
“If we are to work in partnership we should be all be together and have a combined agenda,” he said.
“One key thing is that if you want to be a success you work as a team; you cannot do anything on your own, you need to take people with you”.
Mr Bridge was also sceptical of the mayor’s ambition, noting his “real concerns that politicians from the combined authority (the body that the mayor reports into) are trying to take over the LEP”.
The outspoken traders’ leader also questioned other proposals by the mayor including extending the M11 to the A47.
“We cannot see how that is ahead of many other infrastructure projects we believe need to be put forward,” said Mr Bridge.
Mayor Palmer is annoyed the debate has been allowed to go public and felt Mr Bridge “would want to come to me and discuss it – but he went ahead in his own individual way which is surprising and naïve”.
The mayor however did suggest some form of integration with the LEP might be a possibility since “I believe in lean governance, a few layers as possible; the combined authority with the mayor brings forward an opportunity for reforming public services”.
On the rail link from Wisbech the mayor said politics was different to business in terms of his remit which was to make the whole of Cambridgeshire more economically sustainable and tackle all areas of deprivation.
“I believe the study as part of my 100 days will show a clear business case for the A47 and rail,” he said.
South Cambs MP Heidi Allen – a one time candidate for mayor- felt the LEP should be an economic adviser to local authorities “getting people pulling together in the same direction”.
NE Cambs MP Steve Barclay tweeted: “John Bridge, Cambs Chamber Commerce since 2004, LEP board member since 2012 and current chairman transport committee. What has he done for the Fens?”
Mr Barclay also felt it was “an odd position” for Mr Bridge to “block a local transport scheme supported by three cabinet ministers.” Earlier this year the LEP insisted they had previously funded feasibility studies into the Wisbech rail link but issues raised by Network Rail about level crossings and other costs needed further clarification before they would entertain the Grip 3 costs.
Mr Bridge is reported in board minutes of the LEP as questioning the capital cost of the rail link and highlighting the lack of an operator and potential operating losses.