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If you are a driver, a bus user or a cyclist - make your views known on congestion charging

Opinion | Cllr Bridget Smith, vice chair, Greater Cambridge Partnership

It is not as simple as just saying ‘no’ to some sort of road charging.

Cllr Bridget Smith, vice chair, Greater Cambridge Partnership. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Bridget Smith, vice chair, Greater Cambridge Partnership. Picture: Keith Heppell

I’ve heard a lot over recent weeks from often distressed bus passengers as service after service has been cancelled because of driver shortages and even cut permanently. Children have missed lessons, people have been stuck outside offices waiting to get home and, even worse, patients have been late or missed appointments. There is little or no choice for residents needing to travel around Cambridgeshire, and many residents tell us about the damaging impact our expensive and unreliable public transport has on their life and wellbeing. Things can’t go on like this. We must find a way to do better.

It is a matter of great urgency that we find a means of delivering a fair and equitable public transport network that works for everyone and gives genuine, cheaper alternatives to the car for as many people as possible. The cost of living crisis has widened the gap between those people who can afford to own and run cars and those for whom this uses up a significant percentage of their income but who cannot get to jobs, education and health care by any other means. The Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Making Connections consultation considers one source of local funding for a greatly expanded network and lower bus fares.

While we can all agree that the provision of public transport in Cambridgeshire is woefully inadequate, and for many communities non-existent, the problem, as for many things, is money. The Conservative government has refused to fund Cambridgeshire's bus improvement plan and indeed the government is currently looking to impose billions of pounds of spending cuts which will make life harder for people for many years to come. We have to find our own local solutions and, along with many other leading city regions, we are also considering and consulting on some form of road charging because it not only provides a reliable funding stream for much improved and better buses, it also nudges behaviour change which in turn frees up the road space to be reallocated to public transport, cycling and walking – and away from the private car.

So while the Conservatives nationally and locally gloss over the fact that they have no solutions to these difficult and urgent problems and continue to prevaricate and blithely oppose even a consultation, we are left with the challenge of reducing pressure on congested roads, tackling carbon emissions, and cleaning up our air and fixing public transport. The recent budget did not find any more money to prop up declining bus routes, and realistically this means we are left with the challenge of repairing our completely broken transport network; there are no easy answers.

The GCP consultation on road charging that is running for 10 weeks is a way for local politicians to hear everyone’s voice. Picture: Richard Marsham
The GCP consultation on road charging that is running for 10 weeks is a way for local politicians to hear everyone’s voice. Picture: Richard Marsham

We have evidence that road charging has been successful elsewhere as a means of reducing traffic congestion and providing money that’s legally ring-fenced to fund better buses, walking and cycling facilities.

Most importantly we are hearing genuine concerns expressed about the impact of the Sustainable Travel Zone charges particularly during a cost of living crisis and I can assure you that councillors will consider very seriously the responses received once the consultation ends.

I also acknowledge the challenge of delivering this change in public transport as it represents a complete reversal in the current trend of deteriorating services in our area. However, I believe that real change is required as the consequence of continued neglect will be greater car dependency, congestion and the marginalization of communities and people who do not have access to a car or to ever deteriorating public transportation. We are clear in our commitment that the delivery of a significantly improved public transportation system must occur before any funding mechanisms are introduced.

The current consultation that is running for 10 weeks is by far the best way in which we as local politicians can hear everyone’s voice. It is imperative that everyone, whether you are a driver, a bus user or cyclist make your views known and highlight the specific issues. It is not a matter of Yes or No; it is a matter of how can we deliver a public transport service that meets our needs now and into the future whilst being funded as fairly as possible.

So please think about what this means for you and for your families, businesses and communities and take part in the consultation today.

Bridget Smith is Lib Dem leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council.

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