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Cambridge road charging ‘needed to tackle deadly pollution curse and congestion’



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Pollution is a “curse on you and your line forever” and electric cars are not “the panacea that we would like them to be”, councillors have warned.

The stark message was delivered by members of the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s joint assembly as they discussed plans for a congestion charge for the city.

The corner of Gonville Place and Hills Road, where an air quality monitoring station is based. Picture: Keith Heppell
The corner of Gonville Place and Hills Road, where an air quality monitoring station is based. Picture: Keith Heppell

Labour councillor Neil Shailer, who represents the Romsey division for Cambridgeshire County Council, said: “We have around 100 premature deaths in Cambridge every year due to vehicle pollution, and this is not acceptable.

“I’m a geneticist. We also study foetal abnormalities and germline genetic damage. This is a curse on you and your line forever – we’re talking about cancers.”

He added: “Even electric cars produce pollution through their brake lining so I just like people to realise that this is killing people.”

Road charging is one of the measures set out in the GCP’s Public Transport Improvements and City Access Strategy. It says “prioritising road space for sustainable transport is essential”, with modal filters, a clean air zone, measures to reduce on and off-street parking, higher parking fees, and a pollution or congestion charge all on the table.

Bus services running every 10 minutes in Cambridge and in major villages, with less frequent services for quieter routes, could be funded by a charge, the GCP has suggested.

Peter Blake, GCP transport director. Picture: Keith Heppell
Peter Blake, GCP transport director. Picture: Keith Heppell

Peter Blake, the GCP’s director of transport, told the meeting on September 9: “To deliver on a scale that we think we need and to deliver the space and funding that we think we need, we are looking at major interventions around reducing road space on the basis of some form of charging.”

The GCP hopes to make public transport improvements by 2023, with a date for the road space management scheme not yet specified.

But concerns were raised by members about the impact of a congestion charge on those who rely on their cars, as well as those who could not afford to switch to an electric vehicle.

Cllr Rosy Moore, Cambridge City Council’s executive member for climate change, environment and city centre, said: “We don’t have terrible air pollution within the city of Cambridge, but it’s certainly bad for health, and it’s certainly going to get worse over time if the city expands as it’s likely to.

The air pollution monitoring station at the corner of Gonville Place and Hills Road during the busiest part of the evening . Picture: Keith Heppell. (51129258)
The air pollution monitoring station at the corner of Gonville Place and Hills Road during the busiest part of the evening . Picture: Keith Heppell. (51129258)

“I absolutely would support people that need their cars for transport because they cannot use other forms of transport, then obviously that should be an exemption for them.

“But I just think we need to be reminded that we’re in a climate crisis. That is going to affect all of us, but it absolutely does not affect people equally.”

She went on: “It’s not just about making it fair to people that can’t afford to pay charges, but it’s also about making a fairer world where people aren’t affected by health inequalities.

“People who are vulnerable to air pollution are often the young, the elderly, people with other health conditions, and so I really think we should have those considerations at the heart of this.”

The Labour councillor continued: “I think that improving public transport is in and of itself making a more equal society. It’s creating a service for people. As we’ve said, we want it to be cheap and suitable.

Cllr Rosy Moore (43892411)
Cllr Rosy Moore (43892411)

“But I think there are real equality issues in not dealing with congestion and air quality.”

Cllr Moore also said she was “impatient” for action on a clean air zone, and added that if “we don’t deal with the congestion aspect, we will in the future just have congestion and it’ll all be electric vehicles so the air will hopefully be cleaner, but it won’t solve the other issues that we have in the city”.

But Liberal Democrat, Cllr Alex Beckett, who represents Queen Edith’s on the city council, warned: “Electric cars, especially in the city, are not quite the panacea that we’d like them to be.”

He added: “They do still release a lot of the PM2.5s – the cancer causing pollution – and while, in the more rural areas, that’s less of an issue because it falls away very quickly and it doesn’t get into peoples’ lungs, when we talk about the city itself, especially as it gets more populated, that is a big issue. And it’s something we need to consider.

The air pollution monitoring station at the corner of Gonville Place and Hills Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
The air pollution monitoring station at the corner of Gonville Place and Hills Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

“When we look at this scheme we do need to make sure that it takes that into account and it doesn’t just let electric cars in at will. We can’t simply replace our current petrol-based gridlock with electric automated gridlock, that’s not going to work for anyone going forward.”

The GCP will undertake an equalities impact assessment before pressing ahead with plans for road charging.

Cllr Heather Williams, Conservative group leader at South Cambridgeshire District Council, told the committee she was against “any form of charging” at this stage because the move was “premature”.

“I do feel that if we were to even consider charging in the very near future until we’ve had that natural progression of electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles filtering down through the markets, there are many people that are not going to be going out buying brand new cars, or even five or six seven-year-old cars,” she said.

She continued: “I think it’d be very difficult for many people to get the sort of vehicle that they would need to then not be charged a congestion charge.”

Cllr Williams said she had concerns that any consultations on charging proposals would not be representative and that the voices of those most likely to be impacted by the plans would not be heard.

Cllr Brian Milnes. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Brian Milnes. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Brian Milnes, the Liberal Democrat district councillor for Sawston and county councillor for Sawston and Shelford, also warned that the GCP must also consider that an increase in buses could “form their own congestion”.

In November, the GCP discussed proposals for polluting vehicles to be charged £5 a day to drive into a new ultra-low emission zone. And consultants suggested in January last year that a daily congestion charge of £5 or £10 could be applied from 7am to 7pm, or just in the morning peak hours of 7am to 10am.

The GCP – a partnership of Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and the University of Cambridge – predicts that these changes will cost £40million per annum, which would initially be funded by the body itself. It has been tasked with spending up to £500million of government City Deal money on infrastucture improvements, jobs, homes and apprenticeships.

But the ongoing costs of any public transport improvements would have to come from somewhere.

GCP business representative Claire Ruskin, from Cambridge Network, said the public needs to be made aware that change will have to happen.

From left, transport minister Rachel MacLean MP with Claire Ruskin discussing a trial of autonomous vehicles in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left, transport minister Rachel MacLean MP with Claire Ruskin discussing a trial of autonomous vehicles in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We really need to consult with people on the likely costs, and the other penalties, to have a real balance of view so we can put the positive vision forward very nicely. People will want that, but we know that even one road closure, a very small road, causes remarkable objections. We’ve got to get to the reality of the costs and the other penalties,” she said.

Joint assembly chairman Tim Bick, the Lib Dem opposition leader on the city council, added: “We do need to help them understand that really with one comes the other, and vice versa.”

GCP business representative Helen Valentine, the retired deputy vice chancellor at Anglia Ruskin University, added: “If we do get this bus network it will be transformational. It will also be very expensive. And I do think we need to be very explicit about that right from the outset in terms of consultation that this will only be sustainable when accompanied by a revenue source, so that people don’t get all excited about all these cheap new buses and not realise those two things go hand-in-hand.

“And I’m also concerned about the phasing of all of this. We’ve always said, and I agree, that we need to be able to provide the improvements in public transport first. But if we decouple these things for too long, what we will have is a very expensive set of new buses on very busy roads, and I guess not very many people getting out of the cars to get into the buses that are stuck in traffic. And I think that’s going to be quite tricky.

“But it seems to me that we need to bring the revenue source on stream pretty soon after we get these new buses running.”

She pointed out that the coupling and phasing of the congestion charge and new bus services was key.

Traffic in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Traffic in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We haven’t really talked about that as yet,” she said, “but I think it’s crucial because the worst thing we could possibly do is get new buses on the road that don’t work because nothing else has changed, and then we’ll have quite a lot of people who perhaps aren’t very keen on this whole plan saying what a waste of money, nobody’s using the buses.”

Subject to agreement from the executive board, the GCP will launch a consultation in the autumn.

Mr Blake concluded: “These are important social and political decisions. This is going to involve a trade-off. And my role is to provide you and the board with the information that says if you did this, this is what happens.”

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