Cambridge road-charge plan ‘unlikely to pass in current form’ says Cambridgeshire County Council chair
The controversial proposals for a Cambridge congestion charge are unlikely to be approved, at least in their current form, according to the chair of Cambridgeshire County Council.
Cllr Stephen Ferguson told the Cambridge Independent this week that the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) will need to “come up with a better plan” for road charging “or abandon it altogether if they can’t”.
It represents a major intervention in the debate, as it is county councillors who will ultimately vote on the GCP’s proposals.
Cllr Ferguson, an independent councillor, suggested there may not be enough political will among councillors to pass the current plans due to their unpopularity with county residents.
But he suggested that removing Addenbrooke’s and the wider Cambridge Biomedical Campus from the charging zone may yet prove enough to see the plans passed.
However, the leader of the Conservative opposition on the county council, Cllr Steve Count, said he has “no confidence” in his political opponents, who he feels are now offering a “token amendment” to the congestion charge concept before May’s local elections.
And he is advising residents to cast their vote for anti-congestion charge candidates to send a message and ensure the plan for a sustainable travel zone (STZ) is “binned”.
The GCP is proposing a weekday 7am-7pm charge of £5 per day for any car travelling into, out of or within the zone, which is set to cover the whole of Cambridge, but not Park & Ride sites. Vans would pay £10 and lorries £50, with the funds used to pay for a better bus network, operating for longer hours and with flat £1 and £2 fares.
The GCP will publish the results of its consultation on road charging in June. However, that will fall after the May 4 elections, when seats are up for grabs on Cambridge City Council, East Cambridgeshire District Council and Fenland District Council, while by-elections are due for a couple of county council seats. The rest of the county council – which is run by an alliance of Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent councillors – is not up for election this year.
Calls for a referendum on the road-charging proposals were rejected last month after the county council considered a 15,000-signature petition and public questions, along with a motion from Cllr Count. Opponents called for a poll to be held at the same time as the local elections in May, but that was rejected by a majority of members, who preferred to await the outcome of the GCP consultation, which attracted around 24,000 responses.
But Cllr Ferguson (Ind, St Neots East and Gransden) believes that the congestion charge plans cannot win a majority of votes from the county council as they stand.
He told the Cambridge Independent: “I think myself and other members would want to see the proposals adapted in response to that consultation, because otherwise there’s no point in doing the consultation. You’ve seen from the amount of social media interest and real-life interest that not all elements of this are very popular. And so in order for me to to support it, there would have to be some compromises as well.
“On the county council we have a very small majority, and seeing a controversial proposal passed without significant concessions is difficult for me to imagine at the moment, because it wouldn’t require many people to split. And you’re already hearing dissent from various parts of the county.”
Cllr Ferguson added: “It’s just my opinion, but I can’t see it passing and getting all those votes, because obviously the Conservatives are going to vote against it and it doesn’t require many other members to vote against.”
He explained he would vote with his conscience and unless he was “completely happy” that it was a good deal “won’t vote for it”.
He believes that removing Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the Biomedical Campus may be enough of a concession to win support of a majority of councillors.
But another sticking point would be concessions for people who could not afford the charge and whether administering such a scheme would be workable.
He said: “It seems that every time we talk about this on social media, people in the GCP have an ever-increasing list of concessions, which is important because we need to make sure that people who are economically disadvantaged or vulnerable don’t have to pick up huge bills from the congestion charge.
“But then you look at the list and you just realise that it would be the most complicated concession scheme in the world and totally unmanageable as well. So that’s the other big issue – how much this is genuinely deliverable?”
He also wants to see “proper assurance” that bus improvements would last if the buses were still run by commercial operators who were not under local authority control. Last year, Stagecoach cancelled dozens of under-used bus routes in Cambridgeshire. Cllr Ferguson raised a worst-case scenario that “we’ll be left with the congestion charge and no buses”.
Tory leader Cllr Count (Con, March North and Waldersey) was suspicious of vague promises of amendments to the congestion charge proposal before voters head to the polls.
He said: “We’re getting close to the election. There’s a huge campaign and public resentment against this congestion charge, which is fundamentally flawed. And so we have pre-election messages going out saying, ‘We need to change some elements of it’. I’m sorry, but I have no confidence in the people saying that, when they won’t tell us what it is they will change, how much they will change it by and what the end result will be.
“They’re hoping to affect the election results by offering a token amendment, but fundamentally they want to impose a congestion charge and that still remains a massive issue for those that are against it.
“I’m worried that people will vote for them in the hope that they’ll come up with some reasonable proposal for the problem. The problem is that the congestion charge is so flawed that I’m not sure that they could resurrect this.”
And he added: “I’d like this congestion charge to be completely binned and then the people in charge that are leaders of the county and the districts should be invited to a round table event, to try and get to the bottom of what is and isn’t acceptable to deal with this.
“Just having people throw up different ideas to see which one sticks on the wall is not going to solve this, because somebody throws one up and somebody else takes it down. We need to sit in a room together and thrash this out. But that can’t happen while people are trying to impose this charge that is so fundamentally wrong.”
The GCP spokesperson said: “The GCP received 24,071 responses to the Making Connections consultation which continue to be analysed to understand the opinions which people had.
“The results of this work will be included in a final report on the proposals and next steps, scheduled for the GCP board in June 2023. At that time, the GCP board will make a recommendation to Cambridgeshire County Council on whether to proceed with the scheme.”