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Concerns over bus improvement proposals for Greater Cambridge amid Stagecoach cuts

A councillor has asked whether alarm bells are ringing that “buses might just not be the answer to everything” following cuts to routes announced by Stagecoach.

Cllr Heather Williams, the opposition leader at South Cambridgeshire District Council, has questioned whether alarm bells are ringing over the current proposals for an improved bus service. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Heather Williams, the opposition leader at South Cambridgeshire District Council, has questioned whether alarm bells are ringing over the current proposals for an improved bus service. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Heather Williams, opposition leader at South Cambridgeshire District Council, made the comments at a full council meeting.

Earlier this month, the Greater Cambridge Partnership revealed plans to introduce a ‘Sustainable Travel Zone’ where drivers could face a £5 weekday charge.

The charge is proposed to help fund an improved bus network in Cambridge and the surrounding areas, including cheaper and more frequent buses.

The GCP said it would deliver the public transport improvements before any potential charge, but says “there are two main options for delivering the bus improvements, either through enhanced partnerships or franchising”.

These would come under the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority as the public transport authority.

Cllr Williams (Con, The Mordens) asked why franchising, which has been possible for some time, had not progressed by the Combined Authority even though there had been ‘cross-party’ support for it.

Deputy leader Cllr Judith Rippeth (Lib Dem, Milton and Waterbeach) responded that the cuts by Stagecoach had highlighted the situation and the need to bring a solution forward.

Cllr John Williams (Lib Dem, Fen Ditton and Fulbourn), the council’s substitute representative at the Combined Authority, added: “I totally agree with Cllr Heather Williams, we are where we are, but we are where we are because of previous government policy and present government policy which gives us no power over our local bus services and yes, it’s been an aim of the CPCA to look at introducing franchising but that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Cllr Daniel Lentell, who quit the Lib Dems over the inclusion of Addenbrooke’s Hospital within the proposed Sustainable Travel Zone asked the meeting ‘why on earth’ this was the case.

He raised concerns that including the hospital’s inclusion in the charge zone could “derail the wider proposals”.

The GCP has said it is considering specific exemptions, including for some people travelling to the hospital, with a consultation on the wider scheme expected to be held later this year.

Cllr Rippeth said the congestion charge was a proposal at present, and that a public consultation on the plans was due to be held.

She said: “It is essential that as local members we encourage as wide a demographic as possible to take part in that consultation to inform the debate and to make the scheme as equitable as possible.

“It is essential that we remember that the Sustainable Travel Zone within which there would be a road user charge is to help fund a much improved bus service.

“As you indicate in the premise of your question, equality of access to medical care is essential, some patients and visitors do not own a car either because they can’t afford to or they can’t drive, sometimes due to a medical condition.

“Presently not all of those residents have access because there is not a cheap, reliable, frequent bus service.

“Equally, for many residents that come from further distance to a centre of excellence, for some currently the car would be their only option. This is why the consultation process is just so essential.”

Cllr Lentell argued the plans were being progressed the wrong way round. He said: “Why on earth was Addenbrooke’s ever included in these proposals from day one?

“This is exactly the kind of policy shaping from the start that we need to have as representatives of our people; representing our people to the wider stakeholder map, rather than the wider stakeholder map to our people, this is looking down the wrong end of the telescope.”

Cllr Rippeth said setting the boundary for the congestion charge area was “always going to be complicated”.

Cllr Graham Cone (Con, Fen Ditton and Fulbourn) said people on low incomes were coming to him worried about the charge and asking whether they would be exempt, but said the details were not available to answer this.

Cllr Brian Milnes (Lib Dem, Sawston) added that there were proposed to be exemptions to the congestion charge for people on low incomes and that the upcoming consultation would help inform the details of that.

He said: “Amongst those who can least afford it are some 20 to 30 percent of the resident population who do not have a car and so are very reliant on a very unreliable bus service, and boy have we seen how unreliable that is going to become very shortly.

“The cost of living crisis has underlined the urgency of creating a reliable, affordable, attractive, sustainable public transport system.

“Without that people on low incomes may well be excluded from access.”

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