‘It’s a tax on the poorest’ - thousands of people join rally against Cambridge congestion charge
Thousands of people took part in a demonstration on Sunday against the introduction of road-charging in Cambridge.
Campaigners are calling for the Greater Cambridge Partnership to abandon its proposals for the weekday charge - or for a countywide referendum to be held on its implementation.
The protesters say the “punitive charge” would destroy the “free and independent way of life” enjoyed by residents.
The rally was organised by the Cambridgeshire Residents’ Group, Cambs Against Congestion Charge and Mill Road Traders’ Association.
Groups left from three locations in Cambridge - Sainsbury’s car park in Brooks Road, Tesco’s car park in Newmarket Road and Shire Hall car park on Castle Hill - at midday and marched to Parker’s Piece, where speakers addressed the large crowd.
During the marches, protesters banged drums and held up banners saying “No Cambridge CONgestion charge” and “Keep driving free”.
At Parker’s Piece, speakers included independent South Cambridgeshire District Council councillor Dan Lentell, Cambridge trader Neil Mackay and the chair of the Mill Road Traders’ Association, Shapour Meftah.
Kevin Roberts, Cambridge branch secretary of the GMB Union, which has declared its opposition to the proposals, told the crowd: “The GMB is 100 per cent in favour of having a world class transport system and for Cambridge to be sustainable and green and congestion free, but this proposal will not work. It is a tax on the poorest in our community and we cannot see how it will achieve the desired outcome of reduced congestion.”
The campaigners argue that the proposed charge is an “extreme threat” to the city’s small businesses, independent restaurants, shopping centres and ordinary workers such as nurses, shopworkers, carers and delivery drivers.
They believe the residents most affected by the charge will be the poorest in society, including the elderly, those with disabilities, parents with small children, those caring for others and low-paid workers travelling to work.
Clare King, who works in a Cambridge supermarket in Cambridge, said: “There are so many people in retail, hospitality, cleaning and caring who, like myself, are paid by the hour. They are already struggling to afford to live in or near the city.
“I know from colleagues in my workplace how devastated people are at the proposals. The bus network proposals fall far short of meeting their needs.
“There’s an enormous disconnect between the GCP proposals and the everyday lives of thousands of workers in Cambridge. It’s time to just say no.”
Under the GCP proposals, which went out to consultation towards the end of 2022, car drivers would be charged £5, van drivers would pay £10 and lorry drivers would pay £50 to drive in a new Sustainable Travel Zone across Cambridge between 7am and 7pm on weekdays. Park & Rides would site outside the zone.
The GCP says the money raised would fund a better, cheaper bus network, with longer operating hours and flat fares of £1 within the city or £2 from outside, up to a maximum of £4. There would be exemptions, but not for electric vehicles.
But campaigners say the charge would, for example, add £25-50 a week to the costs of a carer travelling from client to client, or the expenses of an auxiliary worker travelling to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, or any worker who has to use a van to travel with equipment.
David Bailey, chair of two charities, Cambridge Older People’s Enterprise (COPE) and RAF Association Cambridge Branch, said: “The congestion charge could mean the loss of many members and with the RAF Branch’s closure. COPE has been and still is fighting against loneliness and isolation amongst older people, congestion charges will increase these problems.
“We are also providing in both COPE and the RAF Branch the chance for members to socialise among varied groups of society, the poorer members of society will be even more at a disadvantage.
“The most disadvantaged members of society are the elderly and the impact of the congestion charge will be far reaching.”
Rehab specialist Sabrina, who runs classes for people with life-changing and terminal conditions, many of whom are living on a state pension, said her “classes are vital for people to regain quality of life, independence and the ability to manage everyday tasks”.
“They will simply be unaffordable for most… I worry that my patients’ health will deteriorate quickly, their mobility and strength will fade and they will face social isolation,” she said.
Cllr Lentell (Ind, Over and Willingham), who complained that many councillors now refuse to say where they stand on the issue, said: “The way in which this has been handled is hugely concerning and profoundly undemocratic. It is a rewriting of the social contract between Cambridgeshire residents and the council.”
Cllr Lentell explained that some residents were completely unaware of the consultation until recent protests on the issue - and claimed the GCP only recently started reaching out to some of the villages around Cambridge.
A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses recently found that 89 per cent of respondents said they did not agree with proposals for a STZ, with 84 per cent against road-based user charging.
Businessman, Michael Collins of The Paddock Group, said the measures will be devastating for small businesses.
“Cambridge is already a tale of two cities with its rich-poor divide. This will be the case for business too. Multinationals are supporting it, but small businesses are not. Many will simply go under if the proposal goes ahead,” he said.
Mr Collins added: “Cambridge already has a huge problem with staffing shortages and this will be hugely exacerbated.”
“We think it will cost us between £85,000 and £150,000 a year,” added Steve Lunn, managing director of Madingley Mulch, a gardening and landscaping firm that also provides concrete for local builders.
He continued: “On the gardening side, we would lose trade as we would need to pass on immense costs to customers. And a large part of our concrete business would become unviable as margins are already tight and would prove almost impossible to pass on to customers.”
Neil Mackay, managing director of hardware supplier Mackays, added: “We would see a massive increase in costs which would make us less competitive and would drive business away directly to our competitors.”
He points out that around 40-50 vans and lorries deliver to his firm each week, noting that the congestion charge for just one lorry coming once a day into Cambridge would be a whooping £13,000 a year.
In his speech, he said the charge would be the “death knell” for the high street, which was being “bombarded”, and suggested customers would “wonder why they want to put themselves through the journey”.
Sunday’s protest was another significant show of opposition to the charge, following a rally on November 27, 2022.
There was also a rally on December 10, 2022. by those in favour of the charge, who say it will help clean up the air quality in Cambridge and make the city a more pleasant and safe place in which to walk and cycle.
About 13,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the matter, which will ultimately be decided on by Cambridgeshire County Council, as the highways authority.
The GCP says it is currently analysing the results from about 24,000 responses to its consultation in 2022.
A GCP spokesperson said: “The results of the consultation will be included in a final report on the proposals and next steps, scheduled for the GCP executive board in June 2023.
“At that time, the GCP board will make a recommendation to Cambridgeshire County Council on whether to proceed with a scheme.”