Ensuring Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and the surrounding areas have the infrastructure in place to help connect people to well paid jobs and sustainably grow the local economy was on the agenda as the government’s official advisers on infrastructure visited the region today (Wednesday, 2 November).
Improving rural connectivity through better public transport and broadband, enhancing flood mitigation measures and preparing for future weather extremes were all discussed during a series of meetings between the National Infrastructure Commission and Mayor of Cambridge and Peterborough Dr Nik Johnson, alongside local business leaders and officials from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
The Commissioners discussed how government policy, reforms to funding mechanisms and decision making processes can better serve the needs of the East of England. Of particular interest in the roundtable discussion was the region’s challenge around both flood and drought risks and their connection to wider environment protection goals.
Commissioners heard that the north of the county around the Fenlands faced significant risks from inundation and coastal erosion; while in the south, the long term challenge was security of the water supply: most of the region’s water is sourced from protected chalk bed streams with limited scope for further abstraction. Both provided significant challenges to the region’s agriculture sector: a third of the UK’s vegetables are grown in the Fens and much of it is grade 1 arable land, meaning there is a clear long term risk to the country’s food security.
The Commission’s visit was the fifth in a series of engagements with city regions across the country to gather evidence in the run-up to the next National Infrastructure Assessment – a major five-yearly report with costed recommendations to government on the UK’s long term infrastructure priorities, to be published in 2023.
During the visit, Commissioners visited Earith Sluice near Huntingdon to learn more about the recent remedial improvements to the Ouse washes flood reservoir undertaken by the Environment Agency, and heard more about its work with Anglian Water and other partner agencies on the Future Fens initiative, which seeks to deliver a more joined up, catchment-wide approach to the diverse infrastructure management challenges in the Fens associated with flood protection, protecting local biodiversity and water quality.
The CBI East of England also hosted a roundtable event with regional business leaders at the Milton Road offices of Cambridge Consultants, at which Sir John heard about business’ disappointment with delays to delivery of the Cambridge to Oxford Growth Arc strategic plan, not least because of its crucial role in providing additional freight capacity from Felixstowe to the rest of the country. Improving the region’s digital connectivity – particularly on its rail network – was also seen as crucial for raising regional business productivity, with many more staff now working remotely and on the move than before the pandemic.
Mayor of Cambridge and Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson, said:
“The National Infrastructure Commission plays an influential role in government decision making and we were keen to help them understand the challenges and the opportunities facing our region. The visit was an opportunity to showcase our plans to nurture sustainable growth by improving access to education and employment through better transport and digital networks, as well as steps to protect our natural environment and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
“We will build on this visit with a regional collective long term vision for major infrastructure that allows us to take advantage of our dynamic enterprise, entrepreneurism, world-class academia and research and sustain our economy as globally competitive and nationally significant. At the same time making life better, healthier, and fairer for all by reducing inequalities the unacceptable gaps in income, skills, health, and life expectancy across the region with well-planned long term infrastructure.”
The Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said:
“The East of England has always played a huge role in the prosperity of the UK, both as an agricultural heartland and a scientific powerhouse, and we want to help ensure that the infrastructure is in place to strengthen this position. As we face an array of challenges and opportunities in the second half of this century, our visit has given us invaluable insights to inform our future recommendations on government policy.”
The next National Infrastructure Assessment will be published in the second half of 2023. The Commission has already announced that it will focus on three strategic themes: achieving the legally binding net zero emissions target, protecting the environment and enhancing climate resilience, and levelling up economic prosperity and quality of life the UK. Ministers are required to respond formally to the Commission’s recommendations within a year.