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Greater Cambridge Partnership warned concessions must not impact public transport improvements

Greater Cambridge could end up with the “worst of all worlds” if a modified congestion charge fails to deliver the funding needed to create a faster, cheaper and more reliable bus service.

The comments came during an extraordinary meeting of the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s joint assembly and executive board on Monday (June 26).

The GCP board will consider scenarios for modifying the proposed Sustainable Travel Zone Picture: Keith Heppell
The GCP board will consider scenarios for modifying the proposed Sustainable Travel Zone Picture: Keith Heppell

The meeting was held to allow for additional material to be scrutinised before the board is presented with a range of scenarios for modifying the proposed Sustainable Travel Zone today (Thursday, June 29).

The scenarios, which the GCP says are for ‘illustrative purposes’ only, range from reducing charging to morning and evening peak hours only to allowing drivers a certain number of ‘free days’ when they would not have to pay to drive on the city’s roads.

The original proposals would have generated £50m-55m for bus improvements in 2028 and around £73m-£78m by 2031, with the modified options ranging from £13m-£30m in 2028 and £30m-£78m by 2031.

Christopher Walkinshaw, who represents business on the joint assembly, said: “One of the concerns we have when we make concessions of the nature we’re looking at in these options is around the impact on the ability to deliver the public transport system that needs to justify it and, and it seems to me the biggest threat to this is the credibility of scheme is not having a public transport network that works from day one and we could end up in the situation where we give concessions to make it palatable, and then end up with a public transport network that doesn’t deliver anyone anywhere and we end up with the worst of all worlds.”

Kristin-Anne Rutter, who represents the University of Cambridge, added: “We do need to have an independent revenue stream to support transport that is sufficient in size to do the improvements that we want and that through the history of different consultations a form of sustainable travel zone is the way to raise that revenue so I don’t feel that not having a sustainable travel zone is an option we should be considering.”

Under the first scenario to be considered, charging would be reduced to morning and evening peak hours only, and exemptions for patients and visitors to Cambridge’s NHS hospitals would be introduced.

Alternatively, drivers could be allowed a certain number of ‘free days’ when they would not have to pay to drive on the city’s roads. These could be phased down from 180 in 2026 to 60 by 2029.

A third scenario, described as ‘minimalist’, would reduce the proposed charge for cars from £5 to £3, operate at peak hours only, provide 100 free days in 2027 and 2028 and also allow hospital patients and visitors to avoid the charge.

The meeting heard that scenarios with slower bus rollout may disproportionately impact rural residents who are lower income but do not qualify for exemptions.

It was also noted that key workers and shift workers would be less likely to vary their working hours to avoid a peak-only charge whereas ‘free days’ are of equal benefit to all.

Scenario three, the meeting heard, is least likely to benefit those living further away from Cambridge.

Claire Ruskin, who also sits on the joint assembly representing business, said: “I think that doing nothing, which is still one of our options, is very punitive to anyone with less wealth as measured by less access to private transport, so for me ‘do nothing’ comes off my list of options going forward.

“Furthermore, I think any scenario that doesn’t cover fair improvements to public transport, sustainable transport is neither bold nor progressive that we’re looking for. It won’t give access to jobs and education which is what we’re here for. We’re here for access, not reducing things, we’re here for more access to jobs and education.

“There are many things that I like about each of the scenarios and dislike about each of the scenarios but anything that arrives at an answer that is too small to be useful to us I would have to discount.”

A report published ahead of today’s meeting said the revised options were created with the aim of “balancing” the feedback from last year’s consultation with the “benefits and ability to deliver the scheme in a way that continues to meet objectives”. It said the “illustrative scenarios” were “neither exhaustive nor final”, and combinations are possible.

Today the executive board will discuss and comment on the illustrative scenarios for modifying the scheme. It will also be asked to request that officers work with their counterparts at the Cambridgeshire County Council to develop a preferred option for consideration in the autumn.

The board will then be asked to develop detailed proposals for the introduction of early bus improvements based on the GCP’s £50m forward-funding.

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