A company will be set up to develop plans for the proposed Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro.

Cam metro: Taking a step forward with the decision by the Combined Authority to set up a company that will deliver it. Picture; CAPCACam metro: Taking a step forward with the decision by the Combined Authority to set up a company that will deliver it. Picture; CAPCA

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority board voted on Wednesday (August 5) to incorporate a company to act as a “special purpose vehicle” to carry on development of the project.

Some decisions on the project will still be taken by the board.

The Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro, often referred to as the Cambridgeshire metro (Cam metro) or just by its acronym, CAM, is a plan to build a series of routes across the county, including a substantial section in Cambridge using underground tunnels, which will provide a public transport system, most likely using autonomous vehicles with rubber tyres. The stated delivery timeline is 2023 to 2029.

According to a Combined Authority paper the new company will “act as lead entity in the further development of the CAM programme”.

A glimpse of what Cambridge travel might look like in coming years. An underground station in the market square, self-driving buses, futuristic bike stores, and metros running on former busway. Picture: GREATER CAMBRIDGE PARTNERSHIP A glimpse of what Cambridge travel might look like in coming years. An underground station in the market square, self-driving buses, futuristic bike stores, and metros running on former busway. Picture: GREATER CAMBRIDGE PARTNERSHIP

The board – made up of council leaders from across the county – approved the draft business plan, the governance structure, and allowed for recruitment to begin.

The board also approved £2million to set up the company – £1million from its capital fund, and an application for £1million to the Combined Authority’s local growth fund.

A number of specifics for the company will be confirmed in September, including the chairman and board members.

The joint chief executive of the Combined Authority, Kim Sawyer, said the authority is “intending” to bring back a revised business plan and medium-term financial plan in September, “which will set out a much more comprehensive budget for this company going forward over the next four years”.

A glimpse of what Cambridge travel might look like in coming years. An underground station in the market square, self-driving buses, futuristic bike stores, and metros running on former busway. Picture: GREATER CAMBRIDGE PARTNERSHIP A glimpse of what Cambridge travel might look like in coming years. An underground station in the market square, self-driving buses, futuristic bike stores, and metros running on former busway. Picture: GREATER CAMBRIDGE PARTNERSHIP

Also coming back to the board in September, she said, will be “an agreement on how we can continue working with our partners,” which includes the Greater Cambridge Partnership, which has been publicly criticised by the mayor in disputes over the metro.

The decision to create the company was not without controversy, with the leader of Cambridge City Council, Labour’s Lewis Herbert, voting against, and the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Lib Dem Bridget Smith, abstaining.

Both councillors said they are fully supportive of the metro project, but questioned the process and timing of the decision to create the company.

The board also heard that the outline business case for the CAM – which Cllr Herbert said would outline “the definition of the project” – is delayed, and will not be ready this month as anticipated.

The leader of the Combined Authority, Conservative mayor James Palmer, said the outline business case is now expected in January following “a significant piece of work” from the technical advisory committee.

The piece of work referred to questions the affordability of the Combined Authority’s current vision for the plan, and instead suggests using smaller vehicles, which could reduce the estimated cost by more than half to less than £2billion.

Cllr Herbert said the latest technology report proposes something “quite different” to the vision last presented to the board in the strategic outline business case.

“I’m as enthusiastic about the metro as you are and other members of the Combined Authority,” Cllr Herbert said, but he said his “core concern” is that the project currently lacks a clear definition and that the elected Combined Authority – not the company – should progress the scheme further for now.

He said: “Call me old fashioned, but I believe that we need to know what it is, and where it’s going, and how it’s going to be funded before we start setting up what is a very expensive administration.

“It’s the Combined Authority’s job to define what it is and what our priorities are for it. We already employ transport professionals; we have employed the very best transport consultants in the country.”

He added: “I do not think that this is the right time. It isn’t that I don’t believe there is a need for such a vehicle, but I think it’s for this board and for the Combined Authority to provide the leadership and get to the point of resolving what it is.”

He said what the business plan members were being asked to approve was “too woolly at this stage”.

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He added: “In terms of salaries and overheads, I just think we are being asked in a way to buy a pig in a poke, because we just don’t know exactly what the overheads and costs are.”

Cllr Smith said: “There seems to be an incredible rush to get this done. Why now? Why rush in this way?”

She said she could not support a proposed governance structure that “quite clearly shows the Combined Authority subsuming the governance of the Greater Cambridge Partnership. Having that in kind of predetermines any decisions that can be taken on that.”

And she said the Combined Authority was proposing to invest “a huge amount of money” to create and run the company.

She also questioned if members had time to read and digest and discuss the proposals considering their level of detail.

“I don’t feel that I have had sufficient opportunity to shape” the plan, she said.

She also noted the advert for the company board’s chairman had already gone live, prior to a decision on incorporating the company being made.

The mayor said the plans had been discussed “at length” at a leaders’ strategy meeting.

And Ms Sawyer said the advert had gone live to achieve the timetable of appointment by September, but said the role of the Combined Authority board will be the appointment of the company’s chairman.

The leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, Conservative Anna Bailey, said: “If we are committed to CAM, and I certainly am, and I fear that perhaps the previous two speakers [Cllr Herbert and Cllr Smith] appear not to be, we absolutely have to go for this and we have to have the right resources to deliver it.

“We have got to have dedicated, skilled, experienced people with the time that is needed to dedicate to this massive project, and that is not us, it’s not this board and it’s not the existing staff of the Combined Authority.

“If our project is to have the proper credibility that it needs to attract the right people, this is the appropriate vehicle to take it forward.”

The leader of the county council, Conservative Steve Count, said in his view it was “borderline” as to whether now is the right time to create the company.

He said “I verge on the point of positive” saying it would accelerate the delivery of the CAM, “if it’s possible”.

He said it would be possible to show the project is viable without forming a company now, but said the company would give greater credibility.

He also said the latest budget estimate of under £2billion “is in the affordable arena”.

“I have seen some work done on this, and I do believe that we can put together a package of measures, including government backing, that will make that very achievable,” he said. “I would put it in the green zone, although we have yet to do the work.”

Mr Palmer said creating the company is an “extraordinary step”.

“I understand that some may be nervous about it. Some may say, why the rush,” he said. “If we do not sort out the transport system by 2030 the economy will begin to go backwards – that’s the rush.”

He said: “Why we are setting up this SPV (special purpose vehicle) is because we have gone out to the very best and brightest minds in the country, people who have delivered on major infrastructure projects across the world, and we have heeded their advice to set up this special purpose vehicle.

“We are doing what has been recommended to us. It is obvious to everybody that delivering a scheme of this kind, of this scale, of this ambition, is not something you can do within the auspices of local government.

“You have to look to world experts, and you have to listen to them, and this special purpose vehicle will allow us to do that and setting it up now allows us to be in a position when the outline business case is completed that we can move forward at pace – the pace necessary, the rush necessary.”