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Dr Nik Johnson proposes trebling Combined Authority’s council tax precept to fund more buses and ‘mayor’s fares’

Cambridgeshire’s mayor is proposing to treble the portion of council tax levied by the Combined Authority to help pay for better buses.

This means the amount paid by Band D households to the authority each year could increase from £12 to £36.

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson Picture: Keith Heppell
Mayor Dr Nik Johnson Picture: Keith Heppell

Labour mayor Dr Nik Johnson - who was recently told to apologise following a long-running investigation that found he had breached the code of conduct - says the additional funding will help pay for extra bus routes and more frequent services, as well as cheaper tickets that he dubbed ‘mayor’s fares’.

But critics say doing so will go down “extremely badly” with residents who are struggling to manage their own budgets amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

And it comes after external auditors EY warned pervasive “weaknesses” at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority could lead to a “significant impact on the quality or effectiveness of services or on its reputation”.

Cllr Chris Boden told a meeting of the authority board today: “The suggestion that the mayoral precept will be trebled will go down extremely badly with many, many individuals around Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, who have really serious difficulties in managing their own budgets.”

The Conservative leader of Fenland District Council added: “The paying of council tax tends to be one of the biggest burdens they have on a monthly basis and for it to be disregarded that they have this challenge by proposing a tripling of the mayoral precept is unfortunate.”

A consultation on the proposal was approved by the board and runs from Thursday (November 30) for six weeks until 1pm on Thursday, January 11 at https://www.cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.gov.uk/have-your-say. Comments can also be emailed to comms@cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.gov.uk.

Cllr Bridget Smith, who leads South Cambridgeshire District Council, said the view of her group was that funding buses “was an appropriate use of the mayoral precept”.

“It helps us address the problems that are affecting us all,” the Lib Dem leader added.

Cllr Smith also pointed out that many of those on the lowest incomes did not pay council tax because they were eligible for support.

Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of the Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council, at the council's headquarters in Cambourne Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of the Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council, at the council's headquarters in Cambourne Picture: Keith Heppell

Last year, the ‘average’ Band D household in Cambridge paid £2,126.16 in council tax and in South Cambridgeshire paid £2,072.62.

The precept is included in the Combined Authority’s draft 2024-25 budget, which will now go out for a six-week public consultation following approval from the board.

The mayoral precept was controversially introduced for the first time last year and there were some concerned that once introduced, it could rapidly rise.

In a statement released ahead of today’s meeting, Dr Johnson said public services are under enormous financial pressure and decisions “cannot be taken lightly”.

“For us here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough it comes down to either leaving things as they are and watching a broken system fall apart or begin to build up our abilities to deliver the types of enhanced services that a huge majority of residents have made clear they support,” he said.

The Labour mayor continued: “My argument is that for less than 10p a day per average household the combined authority can invest £11m per year in our bus network, enabling more routes and more frequent services, serving far more people more conveniently than is currently the case.

Citi bus in St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge Picture: Keith Heppell.
Citi bus in St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge Picture: Keith Heppell.

“What’s more, this will accompany a huge reduction in the price of travel for everyone under the age of 25, with bus fares cut in half from £2 to £1.

“I believe that we can’t afford to do nothing. To me that’s not [a] responsible government. As I see it, the collective benefits of a better bus network vastly outweigh the modest cost to households with quality public transport helping unclog our roads, clean up our air, and massively increase equal access to the wealth of social and economic opportunities that our region presents.

“I think that’s a price worth paying, and in the weeks ahead, as part of our extended consultation process, I’d like to hear from you, so do please have a look at what we’re proposing and let us know what you think.”

Investigators recently concluded that Dr Johnson had failed to take action amid allegations of bullying and a toxic culture in what independent investigators say “amounted to him condoning such behaviour”. He apologised for breaching the code.

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