It’s official: GCP ditches Cambridge congestion charge plan as political support for it crumbles
Congestion charge proposals for the city have come to a shuddering halt, with the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s board deciding against taking them forward.
With political support for road charging crumbling, the board members agreed the move should not be put to Cambridgeshire County Council, the highways authority.
However, board members said when they met on Thursday that action needed to be taken to reduce congestion and fund improvements to public transport in the city.
Labour’s Cllr Elisa Meschini, chair of the board, said she challenged those who said there were other options to “up their game” and show them.
The GCP announced its initial proposals for a Sustainable Travel Zone across Cambridge last year.
The plans proposed a £5 weekday road charge for drivers, £10 for vans and £50 for coaches and lorries between 7am and 7pm – with some exemptions and discounts, including those on low incomes – in order to fund an expanded and cheaper bus service, as well as improvements to cycling and walking routes.
Thousands of people responded to the public consultation on the proposals with 58 per cent saying they opposed the congestion charge, but with 70 per cent saying they supported the proposed expanded bus network.
Revised proposals were then put forward by the GCP to try and address the concerns that had been raised, including reducing the time the congestion charge applied to between 7am-10am and 3pm-6pm only, and offering discounts for small businesses, plus 50 ‘free’ days.
However, divisions quickly appeared. The Cambridge Independent revealed how Liberal Democrats in South Cambridgeshire had decided not to support the plans, with Cambridge Labour then pulling its support shortly afterwards.
And as we reported, the night before the GCP board meeting to decide on the next steps for the plans a statement was released signed by key Liberal Democrat figures in the county – including the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and the party’s Parliamentary candidates – stating that congestion charging was “not the way” to reduce congestion.
At Thursday’s board meeting, the divisions became clear as Cllr Brian Milnes, representing Liberal Democrat-controlled South Cambridgeshire District Council, revealed that he and the leader of the district council, Cllr Bridget Smith, had not been consulted on the previous night’s statement, and said it did not reflect their views.
He said “considerable time” had been spent by the GCP trying to find a “compromised solution” and said he thought the revised plans met the GCP’s strategic objectives and appropriately responded to the concerns raised in the consultation.
Cllr Milnes said he was “hugely disappointed” by his colleagues who “changed their allegiance” and said he did not think people would thank them in 10 to 15 years time if they “did not pursue this opportunity”.
However, he highlighted that a congestion charge would need to be approved by the county council, and that its leader – Cllr Lucy Nethsingha – had announced she did not support it.
Cllr Mike Davey, the Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, said the Labour group did not think the proposals could continue without the political support.
He accused the Liberal Democrat members who dropped their support for doing so for “purely political” reasons and said this was “hugely disappointing”.
He said he did not support the plans being taken to the county council as they “cannot afford to waste money, time and energy progressing a scheme that we know cannot be delivered”.
Cllr Meschini, who is also deputy leader at the county council - which is controlled by a rainbow coalition of Lib Dems, Labour and Independents - said she had not been aware of the statement signed by the county council leader before it was released.
She said it was “unfortunate” this announcement was made before the board had an opportunity to make a recommendation.
Cllr Meschini challenged those who said there were alternative options to “show them” and said if they could then she would deliver them.
She said: “We have got problems in this region, we have got to fix them. Those who say we can absolutely do that then step up your game.”
Officers will now focus on other areas of the City Access programme which looks at issues such as resident parking, road hierarchy and freight consolidation. This is in addition to the GCP's other infrastructure projects which include: 150km of Greenways, innovative busway schemes from Waterbeach to Cambridge and Cambourne to Cambridge, as well as the significant improvements to Milton Road and Newmarket Road.
After the meeting, Cllr Meschini issued a statement saying: “Last year’s consultation told us many things. We learnt seven out of 10 people wanted cheaper, greener, and healthier ways to get around Greater Cambridge. The public told us they needed more buses to more locations, with cheaper fares and longer operating times as well as better walking and cycling infrastructure to give them genuine alternatives to using the car. We also discovered how those on low incomes do not have the access to cars which many perceived, how frustrated young people are by services which constantly let them down and how those in rural communities feel isolated by the lack of connectivity.
“These were the issues we hoped Making Connections would be able to tackle. However, we cannot escape the reality that the support for the Sustainable Travel Zone was not there despite the amendments made to the scheme. We understand without the groundswell of public and political backing for the changes which were being proposed they could not be delivered effectively.
“However, the challenge remains. Congestion in and around Cambridge is real and constant, grinding the city to a halt and this is before further growth comes to our area. We say this not to defend Making Connections but to bring a sense of perspective about what happens next. It is easy to say action should be taken, that something should be done about climate change or air pollution must be tackled for the sake of future generations but finding consensus as we have seen is difficult, requiring both courage and compromise.
"Going forward the GCP’s focus will be on delivering the safe, efficient, and much needed transport infrastructure communities, residents and businesses tell us they want.”
The GCP said its officers will now focus their attention on other areas of the City Access programme, exploring issues such as resident parking, the road hierarchy and freight consolidation, along with its other programmes, such as the greenways walking and cycling routes, busway schemes from Waterbeach to Cambridge and Cambourne to Cambridge, and improvements to Milton Road and Newmarket Road.