Councillor quits Lib Dems over ‘immoral’ decision to include Cambridge hospitals in proposed daily charging zone
Controversial plans that place Addenbrooke’s Hospital within Cambridge’s proposed £5 daily charge zone for motorists have been branded “simply immoral” – and have prompted a Liberal Democrat councillor to leave the party.
The Greater Cambridge Partnership is proposing to provide cheaper bus fares and more frequent services with longer operating hours, funded by daily charging for road users.
The proposals went before the GCP’s joint assembly for comment last Thursday (September 9) and will go to the GCP’s executive board at the end of the month.
Cllr Daniel Lentell, who represents Over and Willingham on South Cambridgeshire District Council, asked the assembly: “Why has the site of Addenbrooke’s Hospital been included within the proposed sustainable travel zone?
“Why are the purpose-built access roads to the hospital from the M11, which are not open to through traffic, included in this proposal when they play no part in the wider problem of congestion in our city? Why should residents have to pay the GCP or go through some online ramshackle rigmarole in order to visit their loved ones in hospital, visit their doctors, or to meet new arrivals at the Rosie?”
In protest, Cllr Lentell, who was elected to South Cambridgeshire District Council for the Liberal Democrats in May, withdrew from the party and will now stand as an independent. He told the Cambridge Independent that he was unable to get any kind of assurance from South Cambridgeshire District Council leader Cllr Bridget Smith on the issue of including Addenbrooke’s in the charge zone.
However, Cllr Lentell said he had “received satisfactory assurances” from all the other members of the Liberal Democrat leadership in the district.
In his resignation letter, Cllr Lentell said the proposals were “simply immoral” and added: “How can any of you possibly believe what is being proposed is the right thing to do?”
Explaining his concerns to the joint assembly, Cllr Lentell said: “Nobody is more convinced that Cambridge’s bus service is sub-par.
“These proposals are going to affect parents and carers and take money out of their pocket.”
Cllr Lentell explained that he had attended the hospital at least 20 times after the birth of his second daughter and would not have been exempt under the current proposals.
He said this would have added to “the stresses” and costs at a difficult time.
Cllr Lentell continued: “I’m one of those people who think that there is no place for government between sick people and their doctors. The issue here is about the way that those of us in a position to make and shape policy refer to those on low incomes and I hope that we’re going to come to a point where insensitivity to poverty is as socially unacceptable as insensitivity to issues of race or gender or sexuality.”
Cancer patient John Sharpley, who travels to Addenbrooke’s from his home in Pidley, told the Cambridge Independent before the meeting that the plan “simply hasn’t been thought through”.
He explained: “To include regional hospitals in the footprint is simply not sensible.
“To get from my home to Addenbrooke’s would take three bus journeys, on diesel buses, taking closer to two hours each way.
“This compares with taking my solar-charged, electric Nissan Leaf, which is not polluting, and at a time that doesn’t contribute to congestion – and doesn’t require me to travel through central Cambridge at all, and can be achieved in a third of the time.
“This is far safer from a health point of view and also less exhausting.
“If Cambridge wishes to be a regional or national centre of excellence, the council need to come up with a smarter strategy and think of the people who simply can’t travel by bus, and look at opportunities to avoid journeys through the centre of Cambridge which currently occur because the bus hub is right in the centre of Cambridge.”
The GCP is the delivery body for the government’s City Deal money and comprises Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and the University of Cambridge.
It has ambitions for the entire bus fleet to be zero-emission by 2030.
The executive board will decide whether to approve plans for a public consultation this autumn, before the business case is considered in spring 2023.
Public transport improvements would be delivered first under the plans, with some changes potentially from as early as summer 2023, but the new road charge – if approved – would not be in place until 2026 or 2027.
The proposals have prompted widespread debate, with two petitions opposing the plans gathering more than 18,000 signatures to date.
Cllr Lentell concluded: “I’m urging all of you in a position to change this policy, please don’t construct a payment of any sort between the sick people of our county and their families. And more importantly, do not place the burden of paying for this policy – for all its good and bad – on those people who got this community and this country through the Covid pandemic.”
Conservative Cllr Heather Williams, opposition leader at South Cambridgeshire District Council, also raised concerns about the inclusion of Addenbrooke’s within the charging zone. She said buses would not work for hospital visits to premature babies, including those needing to take breast milk to newborns in intensive care.
University representative Kristin-Anne Rutter, who is executive director of Cambridge University Health Partners, said the GCP must also consider those who access the hospital via public transport because they do not have cars. She referenced patients questioning whether to stay in A&E or to leave over fears of missing the final bus.
She said: “The opportunity to improve public transport is absolutely crucial for those who are currently reliant on the public transport network.”
Isobel Wade, assistant director, sustainable and inclusive growth at the GCP, responded: “The question focuses solely on access to hospitals and we know that people on low incomes are much less likely to own a car. If they do, it’s likely to be a much greater burden on their overall household budget than it is on higher incomes, particularly rising fuel costs, and parking is already expensive at the hospital.
“The proposal is significantly enhanced bus provision for hospitals to make visiting and access to appointments easier and for places like Willingham and Over that does include a regular bus service that could connect at Longstanton for direct services to the hospital.”
She said those services would be cheaper than the current cost of paying parking charges, even at reduced rates.
Ms Wade continued: “The Sustainable Travel Zone will enable investment in bus services to improve access across the board rather than focusing on the car as a sole means of visiting hospitals.
“Staff at the hospitals have consistently raised lack of public transport as a key issue affecting their wellbeing and their employment choices.
“Cambridge Biomedical Campus and the wider hospital area is due to grow significantly in the next five to 10 years, including the provision of two new hospitals. Without massively improving access by bus, walking and cycling to the area, then access, congestion and air quality will continue to deteriorate. The access road from the M11 connects through the urban area and therefore includes local traffic as well as access to the hospital.
“Clearly access to the hospitals by car will continue to be absolutely necessary for some people and that is why the proposals include reimbursement schemes. “That includes, for example, patients with regular appointments, patients unable to use public transport, staff travelling with large items or controlled drugs or other equipment, and staff responding to emergencies.
“The suggestion is to consult on the proposals so there is very much an opportunity for staff and users of the hospital to express these before any decisions are taken about the zone’s potential boundary.”
Following Cllr Lentell’s resignation from the South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats, Cllr Smith said: “Dan has been an active councillor since he was elected, contributing to the life of the council and representing the residents of Over and Willingham. It is a great pity that Dan has left the group, as he was helping to shape policy and improve our services.
“Dan has very strong views about how the proposals could apply to Addenbrooke’s. I’m sure that each of us has too.
“It is essential that everyone can conveniently access healthcare at Addenbrooke’s and the other hospitals. A scheme that did not greatly improve access for residents would be unacceptable. It is encouraging that so many people are already looking at the initial proposals from GCP, thinking through how they would work and telling us their views. We are listening carefully and will be taking the feedback on board when it comes to making further proposals.
“This is just the start of a big public debate about how transport around Cambridge will look in the future. Unfortunately, Dan doesn’t seem to have fully grasped that. The GCP has put a scheme on the table for consultation. It is important that we look at that and give our view. Any future work will be based on the responses that we make.
“Councillors have a vital role in ensuring that residents’ voices are heard. Dan is doing that effectively. But we also need to follow the set processes for these sorts of schemes, including getting a full range of views through the consultation. This can be a lengthy process.
“My colleagues and I had been discussing with Dan how he could best influence the scheme. But sadly he appears to have felt frustrated that this was not happening as quickly as he wished.”