Cambridge rally against road charging: Speakers say ‘Give us a referendum or we’ll vote you out’
The second anti-congestion charge protest on Sunday (February 26) was charged with exasperation from residents and campaigners at the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s plans to introduce a £5-a-day congestion charge for vehicles coming into and out of the city.
The gathering, following an earlier rally on November 27, heard speaker after speaker call the congestion charge a congestion tax, rail against the prospect of a two-tier city centre which works for the wealthy but not the workers who underpin its success, demand a referendum, and threaten not to pay the charge if it’s ever introduced.
Three marches congregated at noon across the city and converged in on Parker’s Piece for the 1pm start.
Roy Stamp, of the Cambridgeshire Residents Group, hosted the afternoon’s event.
“Welcome to today’s rally,” he said, and ran through the chant repeated throughout the afternoon – “We won’t pay the fee/Keep driving free/We say down with the GCP”.
“The people of Cambridge and the people of Cambridgeshire have come together with one voice,” continued Roy. “We are being deliberately squeezed from every angle, with a 4.99 per cent rise in council tax, rising energy bills, rising water bills and crippling inflation. The only thing not going up is our wages. But does the GCP care? No. Does the council care? No. Do the universities care? No.”
To cheers he concluded: “But we do.”
The first speaker was Neil Mackay, of Mackays of Cambridge, who has emerged as a strong voice in the city for those alarmed by the prospect of a fee for customers, workers and suppliers driving in the city.
“Do you want the GCP congestion charge?” he asked the crowd of perhaps 2,000. “No!” came the raucous reply.
“Let’s call it what it really is – a congestion tax,” Neil continued before outlining interactions he has had with council leaders and GCP members who, he felt, weren’t listening to the voice of the people, or who had made their decision regardless of the feelings of their constituents.
“When I explained the impact on my business to the GCP, I said that the cost to my business would be £13k per lorry per year. She said: ‘Why can’t you get your suppliers to deliver at the weekend?’”
He went on as the crowd guffawed at the notion: “Genius! Why hadn’t I thought of that before? We follow the revolutionary concept of ‘no taxation without representation’, so what I say is ‘give the people of Cambridge a binding referendum vote – let the people decide!”
Shyanne Roeloffs, co-chair of the Cambridgeshire Residents’ Group, took the microphone, saying: “We are fighting this cruel and regressive tax. We are drivers, passengers, bus riders, pedestrians, cyclists, but most importantly we’ve come together to fight this tax. We will not stand for this crazy scheme which benefits those who are wealthy and privileged enough to live in central Cambridge.
“But what about the eldest, the poorest, the day-to-day workers who live in villages, the mothers, and those with complex living needs? Those who depend on getting around will find their life choices severely curtailed or shut down. The effects will be severe and far-reaching.”
Clare King, who works in a Cambridge supermarket in Cambridge, told the throng: “This is not a debate about buses. This is a debate about who funds buses.
“The GCP, with no democratic mandate, has made this decision. As workers in Cambridge, we rely on overtime and second jobs. We are the engine on which Cambridge depends, on which Cambridge has built its reputation as a world-leading city, yet so often we are disregarded by those in charge. A £5 charge for going to work, taking children to school, for those in hospitality, is a significant amount for our workers.
“This cost of living crisis is not going to go away for a very long time. Cambridge is known as the most unequal city in the UK. It is shocking that this council has so blithely made this proposal.
“They say ‘this is not designed to be punitive’, so I say if you have to say that you’ve already lost the argument. It is punitive, it is regressive, it will hit us hard, it will stop some of us coming to work and it will put some of us into poverty.
“These are plans dreamt up by people in ivory towers who have no idea of the impact on residents, both working and not working. I encourage everyone to come together to stop this from happening.”
South Cambridgeshire district councillor Dan Lentell (Ind, Over and Willingham), who left the Liberal Democrats over the issue, said: “We have a serious problem in that the GCP chair has said: ‘We’re all in the same boat’. No we’re not! We’re all in the same storm, and some of us are barely clinging to the wreckage.
“We’ve seen it all – the dodgy data, the daft arguments like ‘why not do deliveries on a Saturday?’. They can’t win a referendum so they won’t have one – because they have the power to enforce their decision. Except for one thing. Our – my – job is to represent the people to the system, not to represent the system to the people, so how come we don’t take the power off them? We have this thing called elections. A very low turnout in the May elections is very unlikely. We won’t pay the fee! Keep driving free! Down with the GCP!”
The GCP brings together four partners - Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and the University of Cambridge - and is tasked with delivering projects with the £500million City Deal secured from the government. It is currently analysing the 24,000 responses to its road charge consultation last year before it makes recommendations to the county council which, as the highways authority, has the ultimate decision on whether the GCP plans will proceed.
The GCP says the charges - £5 for car drivers, £10 for van drivers and £50 for lorry drivers, operating across a Sustainable Travel Zone from 7am-7pm on weekdays - would fund an enhanced bus service with longer operating hours and flat fees of £1 and £2, up to a maximum of £4.
Supporters, who held their own rally in December, say the measures would improve air quality, cut congestion and enable safer walking and cycling in the city.
Joining the range of speakers on Sunday was a union representative, who offered his verdict on the environmental credentials of the scheme and its impact on working people.
Kevin Roberts, branch secretary of the Cambridge GMB Union, said: “I’ve been asked to represent the disappointment and disgust at what is happening in Cambridge. Thousands of us want to be green, but this tax is on the poor and I can't see how the charge will help congestion – and this is a tax, don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. All this proposal will do is penalise those coming to work, killing off small businesses and pushing up the council tax.
“Buses are not an incentive to get out of cars. Other options need to be explored and meaningful consultation needs to happen. Other stakeholders such as the university should be involved, and dig into their pockets. We want a referendum and if not then we’ll vote them out!”
Kieron Johnson, chairman of Cambs Against the Congestion Charge, said: “A referendum open to all is the only way to have a fair mandate. If the council votes to go ahead without a referendum, they won’t have a mandate. We want an open referendum not a mandate.”
Roy Stamp concluded: “Thank you for coming. Stay strong. Keep fighting. We shall overcome!”
About 13,000 people have so far signed a petition calling for a referendum on the issue.