How the build at any price bridge got built

Emails from Emma Grima (left) and pressure from then East Cambs Council leader James Palmer are reve

Emails from Emma Grima (left) and pressure from then East Cambs Council leader James Palmer are revealed within our investigation into Ely bypass - Credit: Archant

An investigation by the Ely Standard reveals how expediency triumphed over caution in the race to get the city’s bypass built and that speed could have influenced the massive £13 million overspend.

An email trail dating back several years shows the extent to which officers of the county council came under pressure to hasten the procurement, design and build of the bypass.

One email in September 2015 from Brian Stinton, the project manager, detailed “significant risks” if councillors advice was followed to shorten the invitation to tender and design time tables.

Mr Stinton said specialist consultants were warning this was not the way to progress the scheme and he outlined a long list of possible risks if this approach was followed.

Councillor James Palmer, then leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, was dismissive of any delay and in a one line email back to Mr Stinton said, simply, “Brian, I have to wonder what the point is of involving members at all”.

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A few days later that impatience in time scales had fed through to East Cambs Council, not to the council chamber however but to the office of Emma Grima, the commercial and corporate services director.

She was surprisingly explicit in what she felt should happen, threatening to withdraw the East Cambs Council contribution of £1 million if fingers were not pulled out.

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“Whilst I appreciate the risks you have identified in relation to shortening the tender period, the council has failed to fully explain the risks (providing only a very brief summary with no submitted evidence) and have failed to compare the risk of the increasing costs of the bypass with each day this project is delayed,” she told Mr Stinton.

“That being said, not wanting to get into long drawn out arguments over the tendering process (as this in itself will cause unnecessary delay) and the fact that you remain positive than an autumn 2017 completion can still be achieved, reluctantly, the council agree to progress with the tender process as recommended in your email.”

She pointed out that East Cambs Council had committed £1 million of CIL funding but only on a planned completion by autumn 2017, i.e. no later than November 2017 “and preferably sooner”.

She added: “Any slippage to this completion date will result in the district council withdrawing this £1 million commitment. The district council will not be releasing any of the £1 million commitment until after the bypass is complete and will only release money if the bypass is complete by November 2017”.

Many of the emails spanning this period have been obtained by county councillor Nichola Harrison under Freedom of Information.

She is also a member of the audit and governance committee of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and a critic of what she views as Councillor, now Mayor, Palmer’s “high risk speed-at-any-cost approach for Ely; the project board knew what it was doing, indeed pushed very hard for it.

“This means it knew that the £36million budget would be busted by an unknown amount - £13million as it turned out - and that, ironically, delays were likely.”

Cllr Harrison said: “Mayor Palmer was a driving force, probably the driving force, behind this approach. Putting the county council (actually the taxpayers of Cambridgeshire) at risk like this was incredibly irresponsible and yet he is completely unrepentant.

“It is really frightening that he has refused to accept the mistakes of Ely, instead setting the combined authority onto the same path.”

Cllr Harrison believes that the pressure put on the county council – crucially through 2015 and into 2016 – by heavily influenced procurement protocols for the bypass.

“This meant that processes that would have established a reasonably accurate project cost were cut short in order to get an earlier start on site,” she said.

There is much within a dossier compiled by Cllr Harrison– depending on which side of the fence you sit – that could evidence Mayor Palmer as more sinned against than sinner if delivering a scheme such as this as quickly as possible is a determining factor.

Threatening for instance to withhold the £1 million from East Cambs (it is unlikely the email would have been sent without authorisation from above) was a bold stroke.

The odds were high with Mr Stinton observing in his email of September 2015 that the significant risks included ‘inaccurate target cost at tender stage which will include very high allowances for risk”.

His email sounded alarm bells, too, over the rush to build with “insufficient time to properly consider alternative construction methods, particular around the structures and earthworks”.

Ironically his email was sent just two weeks after Mayor Palmer had tweeted a selfie arriving at Shire Hall with the immortal phrase ‘another day at Shire Hall, I wonder who I’ll upset today’ above it.

Two hours after getting the email on September 15 from Mr Stinton, Mayor Palmer remained in bullish form.

“I have to wonder what the point is of involving members at all,” he pinged back.

That prompted a response, two days later, from Stuart Walmsley, head of major infrastructure delivery at the county council, who reminded everyone of the need to factor in risks.

“There are large cost implications and loss of credibility with the public and the industry to consider if we get it wrong,” he said.

In May 2016 we can resume an insight into Mayor Palmer’s thinking reminding senior council officials and councillors of Government support for the bypass and questioning delays.

“”With King’s Dyke, Wisbech Rail, Soham station, the A10, A428, A47 and many more I’m sure to come, it is imperative that CCC are as ambitious and professional as possible,” he wrote. “These infrastructure projects are years overdue and must be sorted if we are to deliver the growth required.”

Since then Mayor Palmer has publicly stated he “makes no apologies” for pressurising the county council to deliver the bypass with the council agreeing in April of this year it “prioritised early delivery over cost certainty” for a scheme that had been a “top priority” since 2011,

The justification was summed up in the statement which pointed out that they had always recognised contingency would be needed. However “it was decided that rather than make an arbitrary allocation of funds from the capital programme it would be better to wait until there was a greater degree of cost certainty and make an appropriate allocation at that time”.

The speedy delivery mantra of Mayor Palmer continues apace with, for instance, his fixation for Cambridge South rail station to move forward quickly. “No one will ever convince me that 2022 is an acceptable target date for the completion of Cambridge south station,” he said in March of this year. He wants it built by 2021.

And just so they know, he described Network Rail as a “failing organisation …..where its inefficiencies and inability to deliver rail infrastructure quickly has held back growth in our area”.

On the Cambridge Metro project he is equally as firm and he expects delivery of the first phase by 2023 with full completion by 2028 “as an absolute baseline”.

Council leaders across Cambridgeshire who hold positions at the combined authority have dug in for better and more consistent scrutiny- how that works out we’ll have to wait and see.

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