Thursday, 5 September 2013

Guided Bus Unsettlement by Cllr David Jenkins

The County Council has done a deal with BAM Nuttall to bring the long running dispute with them to an end. It will cost the Council £33 million or thereabouts but that’s a lot less than it might have done if the dispute had run its legal course and the Council lost. 

The debate will continue for some time with various sides spinning this outcome to their respective advantages and the Tories on the County Council will of course argue that the deal somehow means that the guided bus was a good idea, that its management of the project has been faultless and that it is an unbridled success. There’s no better place to look to see this being done than on Martin Curtis’ blog (click here if you must). Martin is leader of the Tories on the County Council and by virtue of that is Leader of the Council. 

Let’s look at a number of irrefutable facts. 
  • nobody suported the guided bus when it was being planned. That’s not right of course because the Tories and Labour on the County Council did support it but nobody else did. Voters throughout Cambridge thought that it was a bad idea and inputs to the enquiry were overwhelmingly negative with 2735 objections; 
  • it has cost a lot more than the Council said it would. This has meant firstly that the ‘not a penny of tax payers’ money’ promise made by the Tories would be broken; and secondly of course that the economics in the business case were a lot worse than was claimed at the time; 
  • relationships between the County Council and BAM Nuttall broke down during the construction. Nobody knows who was to blame but if they had not have broken down we would not have had the long drawn out dispute that we have had; 
  • not only did the project over-run on cost but it also ran late and some elements which were promised were not delivered as the Council attempted to get get its cost down and so avoid breaking the ‘not a penny of tax payers’ money’ promise; and 
  • we have no idea today whether or not it has been a success for two reasons. Firstly because it was conceived as an essential part of the Northstowe development and we’re a long way off seeing that yet. And secondly because we haven’t yet come out of the recession and the conditions forecast in the business case have not yet materialised. 
Given the above and especially number 5 why do people claim that the busway is a success. It’s generally something along the lines of ‘because a lot of people use it’. That’s clearly true and they do so because it’s quite convenient (although if it didn’t have to fight with the Cambridge traffic and if the payment system was simpler it would be even more convenient) and comfortable and relatively inexpensive (but let’s not go down the route of asking how much the Council is charging the operators to use the busway). But that’s not why it was built and you’ve got to ask yourself if we just did the sums on the busway as a busway and not as a part of an integrated transport whole would it be worth it? 

Martin C talks about comparitive rail fares, the convenience of being able to access ‘electricity charging facilities’, free wifi and a ‘much, much closer to a door to door service’ and compares it to a train jouney from Whittlesea to Cambridge. Apart from the fact that he’s hardly comparing like with like is he really suggesting that an alternative premium transport solution along the same route would not offer the same 21st century conveniences? 

The guided bus is a nice bus journey. The maintenance track is an excellent cyclepath. And the deal with BAM Nuttall seems to be the best that could have been secured given what’s gone before. But it’s the ‘what’s gone before’ that matters; we should never have needed a deal in the first place, the jury’s still out on whether or not the busway is a success or not and why did relationships with BAM Nuttall sour in the way that they did?