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Greater Cambridge Partnership road charge: Who would pay and who would be exempt?

With debate raging over the fairness of introducing a new city road charge to fund bus improvements, the Greater Cambridge Partnership has said that people on low incomes could be entitled to a 100 per cent discount.

Conservatives opposing the proposals have been among those to suggest the proposed charge – £5 a day for a car, and more for larger vehicles – amounts to a tax on working people.

But the GCP says those entitled to the discount would “not have to pay upfront” in order to drive into the new Sustainable Travel Zone.

Traffic and users around Cambridge railway station Picture: Keith Heppell
Traffic and users around Cambridge railway station Picture: Keith Heppell

Isobel Wade, assistant director for sustainable and inclusive growth at the GCP, said: “Giving more people an affordable, attractive option to travel by public transport will have huge benefits for those on low income, as they’re much less likely to own a car, and currently miss out on opportunities to access employment and education, as well as health services.

“For people on low incomes who do own a car, this takes a much higher proportion of their income than those on high incomes. The proposals aim to make it much cheaper for these groups to travel, but some people will rely on their car for particular journeys or due to their particular circumstances and so the proposals include a range of discounts, exemptions and reimbursements to mitigate the additional costs.”

The GCP is currently consulting on the controversial plans. If approved, the charge would lead to the largest ever investment in a UK bus network and would lead to £1 bus fares within the city and £2 for bus journeys in the wider travel to work area. More frequent services with longer operating hours are promised.

To fund these improvements, the transport body has put forward plans for a Sustainable Travel Zone road user charge for private vehicles between 7am and 7pm on weekdays.

The plans have been criticised for impacting those least able to afford the charge, which would include both journeys in, out or around the city.

The GCP says this is because 53 per cent of journeys in the morning peak start within the zone. Over a third of these journeys are wholly within the zone. Since these are shorter, the GCP says they are easier to make by foot, bike and bus than journeys for those coming from further away.

Ms Wade said the plans include discount proposals for “people accessing health services, as well as those on low incomes”. The inclusion of Addenbrooke’s Hospital within the charging zone has proved one of the most controversial ideas.

She explained: “The proposal for those on low incomes is that they receive a discount of up to 100 per cent on the charge, and they will not have to pay that upfront.

“We’re working with partners to ensure that applying for the discount, which would last around 12 months and be easy to renew, is as simple and accessible as possible.”

The GCP also says that there will be exemptions to mitigate the impact of the inclusion of the city’s hospitals in the zone.

Ms Wade continued: “For example, for medical reasons, a range of discounts, exemptions and reimbursements is proposed and that includes a discount for Blue Badge holders whereby they can nominate up to two vehicles to receive a 100 per cent discount and a discount of up to 100 per cent for people on low incomes.”

She explained that during the consultation, the GCP will be working with the NHS on a “suggested reimbursement scheme” for those accessing the hospital.

Ms Wade said this would include “NHS patients clinically assessed as being too ill, weak or disabled to travel to an appointment on public transport, including those who have a compromised immune system, require regular therapy assessments or need regular surgical intervention”.

She added that reimbursements could also be available for “NHS staff using vehicles to carry certain items that include things like equipment, controlled drugs, notes, blood and breast milk, and NHS patients accessing accident and emergency services, and NHS and other emergency services staff who are responding to an emergency when they’re on call”.

“That will all be explored as part of the consultation,” she said.

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

The details of how the exemptions will be implemented have yet to be announced, but the management would be the responsibility of the highway authority, which is Cambridgeshire County Council. Critics have suggested the array of exemptions and reimbursements will create costly layers of bureaucracy.

Scientist Rob Larter, discussing the plans on social media, noted: “Don’t lose sight of the point that whatever charging system is settled on it needs to be relatively simple to avoid creating a mountain of bureaucracy. Someone will have to evaluate every exemption claim.”

The scheme would rely on a network of automatic number plate recognition cameras placed across the zone to capture images of a vehicle’s registration plate. Registration plate images would then be processed to work out if a charge applies.

In line with existing charging schemes such as the one on Dartford bridge, payment could be made in advance or later via an account, online or over the telephone. As per usual traffic enforcement practices, penalty charge notices would be issued where payments are not received, and there would be an appeals process.

Transport director Peter Blake said: “Road charging can only be introduced by the highways authority, which is the county council. We’re positioning the package but the ultimate decision will be for the county council to take, but the GCP will be giving a recommendation on how that happens. In terms of the longevity of it, it’s the highways authority that will be left in charge [of the management].”

The discounts and exemptions

Certain vehicles would be exempt from the Sustainable Travel Zone charge.

An exemption would mean that you do not have to pay for the charge. It applies to particular DVLA categories of vehicle.

Exemptions would be applied automatically without the need to register your details.

A discount of up to 100 per cent would apply to vehicles if they or the driver meet certain criteria.

There is no existing database for these vehicles so an application process will be introduced to apply the discount.

Details of these proposals are still being developed.

The exemptions or discounts are expected to apply to:

  • Exception vehicles
  • Emergency vehicles
  • Military vehicles
  • Disabled tax class vehicles
  • Breakdown services
  • Dial-a-ride services
  • Certain local authority operational vehicles, for example refuse collection vehicles
  • Blue Badge holders - up to two vehicles would get 100 per cent discount
  • People on low-incomes – tapered discount 25 to 100 per cent
  • Car club vehicles (official providers) – 100 per cent.

Reimbursement scheme

Alongside the discounts and exemptions, the GCP is proposing the following reimbursements:

  • NHS patients clinically assessed as too ill, weak or disabled to travel to an appointment on public transport, including those who have a compromised immune system, require regular therapy or assessments, or need regular surgical intervention
  • NHS staff using a vehicle to carry certain items
  • NHS patients accessing Accident and Emergency services
  • NHS and other emergency services staff responding to an emergency when on call
  • Other essential emergency service trips made in business vehicles that are not specifically listed above for exemptions, for example, fire safety inspections
  • Social care, community health workers and Care Quality Commission registered care home workers
  • Minibuses and LGVs used by charities and not-for-profit groups.

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