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Greater Cambridge Partnership’s congestion charge plans unravel over ‘party politics’

A decision to not scrutinise revised congestion charge proposals was taken by the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s joint assembly today (Thursday) amid a lack of political support for the plans.

The assembly – made up of elected councillors and representatives from businesses and academia – was due to debate the proposals before they are put to the GCP executive board.

Representatives of the Liberal Democrat group at South Cambridgeshire District Council said they “did not feel able to discuss matters” after their party said it did not support the current plans.

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

Cambridge Labour also announced on Wednesday that it did not think the current proposals should proceed.

However, some argued that the scrutiny and debate should go ahead.

Cllr Graham Wilson, who represents Cambridgeshire County Council, said the authority’s Liberal Democrat group had not yet formed an opinion on the new proposals.

He added: “But we do already know that the proposals on the sustainable travel zone do not have sufficient political support to pass through to the next stages. We need to heed the very clear messages from the consultation on the need for better public transport and work with partners at the Combined Authority, the constituent councils and the government on a long-term vision and stable funding for those urgently needed improvements.”

Cllr Simon Smith, representing Cambridge City Council, told the joint assembly that the decision not to press ahead with the revised proposals was “party political” and not “made on matters of principle”.

He told the meeting that the South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats had decided against supporting the proposals following a vote of 18 to 14.

He said the decision was made at a meeting called by the party’s two parliamentary candidates Pippa Heylings and Ian Sollom, who have both declared opposition to the plans over the past week.

Cllr Smith said: “This has been a party political decision, not one made on matters of principle. The scheme therefore falls due to 18 people putting party interests in front of the future transport system needed to meet locally determined housing needs, reduce congestion, promote better health through cleaner air, safer walking and cycling and give people without cars access to education, training, work and leisure.”

Claire Ruskin, who represents business, said: "There isn't a decision to be made today but we are embroiled in a very important conversation. I think it has been propelled by a political party that nationally found a way to get votes and the other parties have had to follow a downward spiral led by those who can shout the negatives loudest. It's not about bold leadership to do the right thing. There is a plausible story about us not needing to do anything much, but it's a pretty lazy story. I think GCP has gone a long way with the discussion and I'm disappointed to stop the conversation."

Sara Lightowlers, from Cambs Parents for Sustainable Travel, had earlier told the joint assembly: “Politicians have failed everyone in the region. There has been so much focus on the cost to drivers you have failed to account for the cost of inaction on everyone else, because failure will impact by reduced life chances, to employment, and poorer health.”

However, on the other side of the debate, William Bannell described the proposals as ‘unpopular and unworkable’ and said the GCP had ‘totally failed Cambridge and represented an enormous waste of money and time’.

Councillor Heather Williams (Conservative) and Councillor Neil Shailer (Labour) both said they were happy to scrutinise the revised proposals.

Cllr Williams said she thought it was “fundamentally wrong” for the papers to go to the GCP board without any scrutiny, highlighting that a decision on the plans had not yet been made.

The joint assembly agreed to ask officers to prepare a paper for the executive board to cover the implications of not progressing with the scheme and to investigate further funding options.

Cllr Tim Bick, chair of the joint assembly, said: “Making Connections is one of a number of ways that the Greater Cambridge Partnership is looking to improve how people can get around Greater Cambridge. It aims to reduce the traffic and congestion that blight Cambridge and, in turn, raise much-needed funds for a new and improved local bus network accessible to more people in new areas.

“As today’s joint assembly heard, these challenges aren’t going away – congestion is increasing, collisions are still high and bus services are dwindling. We hope the insights and options developed through Making Connections will support future efforts to reduce the number of private cars on local roads and raise the funds that are so desperately needed to expand and upgrade the local bus network.

“The joint assembly today recommended the GCP executive board ask officers - with colleagues from partner authorities and organisations - to prepare a paper to outline the consequences of not proceeding with the Making Connections proposals on other GCP projects, the Local Plan and potential bus reforms. This should also look at sources of funding and this should be presented to the executive board ahead of any final decision being made.”

A decision on what happens next is now due to be made by the executive board at a meeting on September 28.

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