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£4.7m spent on aborted Cambridge congestion charge proposals

The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) has spent £4.7million on the failed congestion charge proposals, a Freedom of Information Act request has revealed.

The proposals for a weekday road charge for anyone driving into, out of, or around Cambridge were finally abandoned last month after members of the GCP’s board decided against taking them forward. Now political commentators and campaigners have argued it was all a colossal waste of public money – and even questioned whether the GCP should be folded.

A consultation on a Cambridge congestion charge generated more than 24,000 responses
A consultation on a Cambridge congestion charge generated more than 24,000 responses

But GCP officers said in response that the data collected will “benefit Greater Cambridge in the years ahead”.

Campaigner Clare King was among those who spoke out about the potential harm to low earners from a congestion charge that could have cost up to £1,300 a year.

She said: “I think almost anybody involved in the last 11 months of looking at, debating and fighting the plans for a congestion charge for Cambridge will question the value of the £4.7m that the GCP has spent so far.

“I think it is widely felt that the GCP is not delivering good value for the money that it is charged with overseeing and spending. I’m sure they will say that some of the studies that they have commissioned will be useful going forward. But frankly, the GCP is time limited anyway and never came up with a plan B. And plan A has cost £4.7m, only to fail at the last hurdle and to make people generally distrust almost anything the GCP brings forward.

“So I think people will be asking if this organisation is fit for purpose, and if it instead should be dissolved and folded into a more sensible and coherent local government structure for Cambridgeshire and possibly Peterborough. Distrust for the GCP is now at such a level that it would be better for everybody if it is folded early.”

Clare King speaks at a rally opposing the congestion charge. Picture: David Johnson
Clare King speaks at a rally opposing the congestion charge. Picture: David Johnson

Clare added: “Everybody still wants a better bus service. The question was always on whose shoulders should the burden of paying for that bus service fall.”

The GCP is a delivery body for up to £500million of City Deal money from the government and will be disbanded once its role is complete. It conducted an in-depth consultation, called Making Connections, over 10 weeks on its plans, to which it received more than 24,000 responses, with 58 per cent opposed to the charge.

It then revised the proposals to peak-time charging. Under that scheme, car drivers would have paid £5, van drivers £10 and HGVs and coach drivers £50 to use Cambridge’s roads on weekdays between 7am-10am and 3pm-6pm in a move designed to cut congestion and fund a better bus network. But in the face of public opposition, there was no political will to put the plans forward to the county council. The plans have now been ripped up and the GCP is focusing on its other projects, including plans for new busways and the greenways active travel network.

Business owner Neil Mackay, who is part of the Cambridgeshire Residents’ Group that organised protests against the charge, said: “I am absolutely flabbergasted to hear that so much money has been spent on this congestion charge proposal, which was always based on a misguided concept. Of course people are going to say they want better buses but they never agreed to this way of funding them.”

A rally against the congestion charge. Picture: David Johnson
A rally against the congestion charge. Picture: David Johnson

Asked how much had been sent in total on the congestion charge proposals using powers under the Freedom of Information Act, the GCP answered: “The estimated spend across the full lifetime of the Making Connections proposals, including predecessor studies and consultations, is £4,762,140.”

And when asked to show the top three expenses that made up this figure, the GCP explained these were all for consultants. There were:
- WSP – £848,619 and £790,415
- Atkins Global – £794,977.

The Cambridge Independent’s political columnist Phil Rodgers said: “Clearly, it's an awful lot of money to spend for something that's not going to progress. You got to wonder if there wasn't a cheaper alternative. I mean, they needed to work out the proposals in enough detail to be able to say what they thought was going to happen. And it's clear a huge amount of work has gone into the plans, but we seem to have come out the other side with very little to show for it.”

He added: “I wonder whether the citizens’ assembly that they did fairly early on might have misled the GCP into thinking that the plans they came up with were going to be more acceptable to people in general than they actually were. The citizens’ assembly came out with one set of suggestions, but when the Sustainable Travel Zone was actually put forward to wider consultation, you got quite a different reaction from the population at large. So I wonder whether that was part of the problem.”

A rally in favour of the congestion charge to pay for a better bus network
A rally in favour of the congestion charge to pay for a better bus network

Lynne Miles, the GCP city access programme director, said: “The development of the Making Connections proposals has been a five-year process involving not just the consultation work from last autumn but a huge amount of technical work, a citizens' assembly and other public engagement activities, culminating in the preparation of a business case in line with the process set out by the Department for Transport.

“Throughout this period we have collected significant amounts of data to help to understand the needs of our communities. We learnt seven out of 10 people wanted cheaper, greener, and healthier ways to get around Greater Cambridge. The public told us they needed more buses to more locations, with cheaper fares and longer operating times as well as better walking and cycling infrastructure to give them genuine alternatives to using the car.

“This evidence will not be lost - we intend to use this as we deliver the other GCP schemes and also, where appropriate, work with our partners to ensure the investment which we made can benefit Greater Cambridge in the years ahead.”

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