Cambridge loses its cool at congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece
Opinion | Mike Scialom offers his take on the protest against the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s plans for road-charging in Cambridge to fund a new bus network.
Cambridge officially went bonkers today. The city has endured the years of Brexit mayhem, the cost-of-living crisis, the endless prime ministers – even the climate emergency – stoically, but the proposed £5 daily congestion charge is now officially the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Hundreds of protesters made their feelings clear on the divisive issue of the £5-per-day charge for motorists to come into or go out of the city, about which the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) is currently consulting.
The GCP argues the charge will halve the volume of traffic in Cambridge and fund a new bus network. Among the arguments against it is that this is a tax that will hit the poorest hard and will kill off businesses.
Organised by Cambridgeshire Residents Group, in alliance with Mill Road Traders Association, the protesters had walked to Parker’s Pieces after meeting at midday at various starting points – Tesco car park on Newmarket Road, Sainsbury’s car park on Brooks Road and Castle Street Car Park.
The groups gathered around the pavilion on the central Cambridge green to listen to speakers who laid out their objections to the charge which the GCP hopes to introduce by 2027-28, and which would affect private vehicles between 7am and 7pm on weekdays.
The key accusation giving rise to this level of ire on the city’s streets is that the charge is basically a tax on the poor, alongside the complete lack of confidence that the citizens of the city have in the promise being made by the GCP that the money will be used to deliver effective bus services across the city and in the rural outposts surrounding the city.
The lack of trust has been exacerbated by the fact that users of the Stagecoach bus routes in and around the city are exasperated by the delays they now experience on a daily and indeed hourly basis.
Cllr Dan Lentell (Independent, Willingham & Over) told the cheering crowd Cambridge is a city which has proved time and again that nothing is impossible.
“I am no kind of nationalist but if I were I would be a Cambridge nationalist,” he said, and outlined the achievements of Newton, Keynes, Hawking, Crick and Watson, and Samuel Pepys in the city.
“Nothing is impossible,” Cllr Lentell continued. “This is where we split the atom. As Martin Luther King said: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ What’s happening is that this is a well-dressed group of people who are shoving poorer people out of the way, like on the Titanic where the rich push past the poor to get to the lifeboats.”
Massive cheers for this, you wouldn’t believe a crowd of 800 or so people could make so much noise.
“I represent Willingham. We have a big history which goes back to 1066 and this congestion charge shouldn’t be any part of it.”
Another pause while the crowd roars drown him out.
“This [charge] is a policy built by people who don’t care and the question I’ve got for you today is – how much do you care?”
Measured in decibels, people care very much.
“We’re here at Cambridge’s Reality Checkpoint. This is where we stop with the apathy. You cannot have a democracy if people don’t participate, and what we do is we agree now, this is our moment, this is Cambridge, we know everything there is to know but we don’t know where we put the answers but my answer is this: up with this we will not put and when Cambridge gets grumpy you don’t want to get in the way.”
The euphoria of joy that emanated from the crowd suggested that local politicians in Cambridge have been failing to connect with the populace for some time but Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, was out to prove otherwise.
“Thank you for this turnout which really shows how much people care about this congestion charge,” he said as he started his speech. “I’m Cambridge through and through, I was born in Mill Road, and I know how much businesses in the city will be hit by the congestion charge.
“We’ve heard stories about people being priced off the road, people who won’t be able to get to work because they’ll have to pay £1,300 a year, and this is for people already on low incomes.
“Don’t believe the air pollution argument either – Cambridge has got some of the cleanest air in the UK, the city is second in the entire country for air quality.”
“I’ve got a little message for the GCP – electric vehicles. Electric vehicles and sustainable charging. The fact is this is not about air pollution [cheers], this is not about congestion [cheers], this is about the money. There are plenty of alternatives – you can read about them in the Cambridge Independent – but the congestion charge is not moral and it’s not necessary.”
“Do we want it?” NO, screams the crowd.
“Can we stop it?” YES, screams the crowd.
“We live in a democracy,” continued Mr Browne. “Everyone involved in this decision is democratically elected, and people are overwhelmingly opposed to it. Yet a lot of councillors won’t say what their view is on a congestion charge, so my suggestion is to write to them, go and meet them, and ask them to say publicly whether or not they’re for or against a congestion charge.
“Get active. Get writing. We can win this, and we will win this.”
Abdul Arain, from Mill Road Traders Association, closed the afternoon’s speeches.
“We are all going to pay for this,” he said. “People are already not able to get into town because buses are cancelled so many times every day. Imagine if that was your carer, or your child’s teacher. And the extra cost to business for suppliers wanting to make deliveries – where do you think that is going to come from? We’re in it together or we’re going to lose it together. As the three musketeers said: ‘One for all, and all for one’. We’ve got to be all for one another.”
After the speeches, the debate continued - with one supporter of the charge shouting ‘cars kill cities’.
Organiser Cambridgeshire Residents Group has grown from eight members two months ago to 3,200 members today. It has just launched its website. A petition calling for the charge to be scrapped has now reached 6,000 signatures.
The debate continues, with a march in support of the charge due to take place on December 10, but today a powerful statement was made to local politicians: you can’t take anyone’s support for granted and the congestion charge issue is Cambridge’s very own Poll Tax moment. Check the history books for how that one played out.