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Anthony Browne MP: ‘My survey found only 6% of people support congestion charging in Cambridge’

Opinion: Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, discusses the results of his surveys into the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s proposals for a road charge in Cambridge to fund an upgraded bus network.

Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell

Can we actually beat the congestion charge? It is the question I am most often asked when out campaigning against the plans.

Evidence suggests that this should be possible. For a start, just six per cent of people support congestion charging in Cambridge, according to my survey. To put that in perspective, that’s less popular that Vladimir Putin (liked by nine per cent, according to YouGov). Councillors with integrity are rebelling, and even resigning. The spectrum of political opposition runs from Conservatives to Communists.

And, I can reveal in this column, business is against it too – a similar survey I ran showed 110 of the 130 companies who responded were opposed to the plans. I surveyed 130 local businesses in South Cambridgeshire, many of whom do business in Cambridge city – 84 per cent of them were against the plans.

Very negative impacts were anticipated by 62 per cent of businesses, while a further 18 per cent indicated they expected at least somewhat negative consequences. When offered a list of potential impacts of the charge, 73 per cent of respondents said that the charge would increase their costs, with around 45 per cent indicating the proposals would mean they received less custom and make life more difficult for their staff. In addition, 20 per cent of respondents indicated they would have to consider letting staff go. Just three per cent suggested the impact would be somewhat or very positive for their business.

This adds fuel to arguments that any congestion charge will have profound financial impact on business, and a knock-on effect on our local consumers, suppliers and jobs market.

Speakers at the congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge . Picture: David Johnson
Speakers at the congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge . Picture: David Johnson

There is a reason why some of the main campaigners against it are local businesses, worried that Cambridge will be turned into a ghost town with tumbleweed blowing through. The GCP is supposed to be helping to unlock economic growth in our area, and if we are to continue to be a major net contributor to the UK economy, we need to be looking at alternative ways to fund the transport solutions we need.

But people are worried that the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s minds are made up. It’s not helped by the board, who are far from impartial. Not content to wait for any kind of consultation, local Labour and Lib Dem leaders have taken to Twitter to push their case, leaving many convinced that they will ignore the huge backlash. And the problem is, they can.

This is no Parliamentary vote, where the results are posted for all to see. It’s not even a council vote, which are often minuted as simply for or against, with no visibility of which councillors voted for or against. It’s going to be decided behind closed doors, so councillors can tell their voters they are against it while their leader votes it through. Typical Lib Dem politics – they avoid accountability, and the public pays the price.

That’s why I’m calling for a series of public votes. Firstly, public debates in the three councils that make up the GCP – that’s Cambridge city, South Cambridgeshire district, and Cambridgeshire county. After allowing their members to have their say – or keep quiet, as the current majority of Liberal Democrats have done in South Cambridgeshire – they need to hold a recorded vote so their residents are able to hold their councillors accountable for the decision.

If the plan goes ahead, then the county council needs to step in and hold a referendum.

Anthony Browne speaks at the congestion charge rally held on Parker's Piece on Sunday, November 27, 2022. Picture: Mike Scialom
Anthony Browne speaks at the congestion charge rally held on Parker's Piece on Sunday, November 27, 2022. Picture: Mike Scialom

It is not an unreasonable suggestion – indeed, people are already being consulted upon it. Given the huge financial implications of implementing the congestion charge, which we have yet to see a business case for, it is far preferable to ensure the scheme has the support of residents before going ahead.

The Lib Dems want to bypass all this. I asked 11 of their councillors if they supported a referendum, promising to pass that information on to their constituents – the two that responded are against asking you, with one even intimating it was too complex for residents to understand, and the other nine hid away. Incidentally, our two South Cambridgeshire Conservative councillors, Mark Howell and Mandy Smith, both responded confirming they would support a referendum. They don’t have anything to hide, and neither do I.

On an issue that may cost their residents thousands of pounds a year, these councillors remain silent and hope people won’t notice.

Are they, in direct defiance of democracy, preparing to settle this issue behind closed doors? I have news for them – their residents will not accept this.

You can respond to the GCP’s Making Connections consultation until midday on Friday, December 23 at https://consultcambs.uk.engagementhq.com/making-connections-2022

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