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Is the GCP’s revised peak-time congestion charge plan for Cambridge already ‘dead’ in the water?

The Greater Cambridge Partnership’s revised congestion charge plans for the city have hit a major roadblock, with suggestions that the Liberal Democrats in South Cambridgeshire have agreed to oppose them.

A source told the Cambridge Independent’s political commentator, Phil Rodgers, that the group voted against the proposals for the Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ) at a party meeting on Tuesday evening.

The GCP says a road charge would fund a better bus network. Picture: Keith Heppell
The GCP says a road charge would fund a better bus network. Picture: Keith Heppell

“There was a wide ranging debate, but a clear majority felt that the new proposals were not going to get popular support," said the source, adding: “I also understand that the county Lib Dem group is wanting to halt work on the STZ."

There has been no official word yet from the South Cambridgeshire or county Liberal Democrat groups, but to progress the plans will need the party’s support.

Phil suggested the plans are “effectively dead” in the water without Liberal Democrat support.

The GCP put forward updated proposals last Friday for peak-time charging across all of Cambridge, excluding Park & Ride sites.

The plans are due to go to the GCP’s joint assembly on September 7, before its executive board decides whether to put them forward to the highways authority - Cambridgeshire County Council - for a decision.

The county council is run by a rainbow coalition of Liberal Democrats, Labour and Independents, after the Conservatives lost overall control at the last election.

Many Conservatives have already voiced their opposition to the charge, fearing the impact of a weekday charge on families and businesses, and with 26 seats they remain the largest party on the council.

If the Liberal Democrats - the second largest party with 22 seats - joined them in voting against the plans, they could not progress.

Labour has nine county council seats - all in Cambridge, including that held by GCP’s chair Cllr Elisa Meschini - and there are four Independents.

The original GCP scheme would have charged drivers to drive in the city between 7am to 7pm, Monday to Friday.

After a consultation confirmed majority opposition to the plans, the GCP went back to the drawing board and last week unveiled its new scheme, proposing charges between 7am-10am and 3pm-6pm on weekdays to cut congestion at peak times. The charges - £5 for cars, £10 for vans and £50 for HGVs - were unchanged, except that motorcyclists would now be exempt.

Rachel Stopard, GCP chief executive
Rachel Stopard, GCP chief executive

The revised proposals also include 50 ‘free days’ for car users, a 50 per cent discount for locally-owned small and medium-sized enterprises and further exemptions for those travelling to hospital.

The plans would bring in an estimated £26million a year to improve the bus network across Cambridgeshire, with more frequent services and flat fares of £1 and £2. And the charge would bring in £5m a year for ‘active travel’ improvements.

This is considerably down on the £50m a year that would have been raised by the original scheme, but attempted to address some of the objections raised in the consultation.

Rachel Stopard, the GCP’s chief executive, said they had listened to people’s concerns, and that the revised proposals were “fair to everybody”.

But the early response has not been encouraging for the GCP.

The groups that opposed the original plans say their position is unchanged.

And outside of Cambridge, the Lib Dems know that their chances of getting their first MP elected in Cambridgeshire could be dashed if they do not oppose the congestion charge.

Ian Sollom will stand for the Liberal Democrats at the next General Election in the new seat of St Neots and Mid Cambridgeshire
Ian Sollom will stand for the Liberal Democrats at the next General Election in the new seat of St Neots and Mid Cambridgeshire

Ian Sollom, the Lib Dems’ newly-announced Parliamentary candidate for the new constituency of St Neots and Mid Cambridgeshire, began his campaign by announcing opposition to the congestion charge.

The man he will go up against - Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, who will switch to fight for the St Neots and Mid Cambridgeshire at the next General Election - is a vocal opponent of the plans.

Chris Carter-Chapman, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire, has said: “I remain strongly opposed to the plans and superficial changes will not divert us from our campaign to stop a tax that will hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest, and do huge damage to our local economy.”

And the GCP’s revised plans were branded “insulting” by Cllr Heather Williams, the leader of the Conservative group at South Cambridgeshire District Council.

Pippa Heylings, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell
Pippa Heylings, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Pippa Heylings, the Lib Dems’ Parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire, and a district councillor, has called for alternative means of funding a better bus network, saying: “The voice of residents rings loud and clear: they want better buses, safer cycle ways and links between villages, work, colleges and the city centre; but there is little support for a congestion charge as the only way to pay for this. I urge the GCP to go back to the drawing board and rethink the solutions; with funding secured from multiple, alternative sources for the bus improvements. People need to see with their own eyes that they can trust public transport to be reliable, frequent and affordable.”

Other options for funding could include a workplace parking levy, although it is would not raise as much.

There may yet be political support for road charging within Cambridge, but Labour and the Lib Dems have still to confirm their positions.

Cllr Mike Davey, leader of Cambridge City Council, said the city’s Labour group would be meeting to discuss the proposed changes and that he would follow the group’s collective position.

Cllr Tim Bick, leader of the Liberal Democrat group at the city council, and chair of the GCP’s joint assembly, said the changes looked like a “very serious attempt” to “acknowledge and respond” to the consultation feedback.

Cllr Tim Bick, the Liberal Democrat leader on Cambridge City Council
Cllr Tim Bick, the Liberal Democrat leader on Cambridge City Council

He said: “I welcome this because a way forward is still badly needed. There is a good deal to read and consider and I look forward to the assembly meeting on September 7, to discuss it further then.”

The Green party, however, has voiced misgivings about the impact of charging on the vulnerable.

There is support out there for a charge - Cambs Parents for Sustainable Travel and Campaign for Better Transport are in favour, for example.

In a statement, Cambs Parents for Sustainable Travel said: “If rumours that the Liberal Democrats have decided to pull their support for sustainable travel are true then the situation for the city and its surrounding communities is dire. We face increasing congestion, poorer health, a climate emergency and an unfair, unaffordable transport system with poor choices especially for disabled people and those on lower incomes.

“We are particularly disappointed at the lack of willingness amongst too many of our political representatives to confront misinformation from the no campaign and make a confident, positive case for change. There also has to be a question on whether the structure of local democracy in Cambridgeshire is fit for purpose given the challenges of a fast growing city in the south of the county.

“Now we still have the same problems, they are getting worse, and we may have no plan. Cambs Parents for Sustainable Transport will continue to campaign for change, to win hearts and minds and finally ensure that all have attractive, affordable, green transport options wherever they are travelling."

It is clear the GCP would need a major groundswell of political support to get its plans over the line - and there are few signs of that emerging yet.

A spokesperson for the GCP said: "Revised proposals to the Sustainable Travel Zone were published on Friday 25 August as part of the Making Connections programme. The updated recommendations were developed in response to feedback from local residents, communities and businesses, balancing considerations to provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity that will solve the problem of congestion that blights roads in Cambridge.

“In line with our usual procedure, the proposals are now going through a formal review beginning with the joint assembly meeting on 7 September who will scrutinise the options before a recommendation is made to the GCP executive board, which meets on 28 September.”

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