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Cambridgeshire’s mayoral precept to triple – and council leader fumes that devolution should not be a ‘new excuse to tax local people’

The mayoral share of the council tax bill will triple this year to fund new bus services - despite opposition councillors saying devolution should not be a “new excuse to tax local people”.

The decision will mean people in a Band D household will pay £36 a year to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority - up from £12 last year, when the precept was introduced.

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Dr Nik Johnson
Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Dr Nik Johnson

And the decision - approved by a majority of board members - came the day after the government issued a formal notice raising concerns about the authority.

Dr Nik Johnson, the Labour mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, said the precept rise was a price worth paying to fund new bus services and ensure people in the region were not “left behind”.

But the Conservative leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Anna Bailey, a fellow board member, said she could not support the increase, arguing the Combined Authority should try to ‘live within its means’.

The mayoral precept was introduced last year after the authority took on the responsibility of funding a number of bus services that had been due to be cut by their operator the year before.

Thirty new bus services will be funded by the rise, while bus fares for under-25s will be cut to £1, thanks to the £11million that will be raised.

Dr Johnson told the Combined Authority’s board last Wednesday (January 31): “The additional precept will mean we can offer more routes and more frequent services, serving far more people more conveniently than is currently the case.

“What is more, as you aware, in our general budget we are also offering a huge reduction in the price of travel for everyone under the age of 25 with bus fares cut in half to just £1.”

A survey by the Combined Authority found a narrow majority - 52 per cent - were in favour of the move.

“I am pleased to say that these proposals enjoy popular support,” continued the mayor. “The 700-plus bus survey responses is evidence of our region’s need, demand and indeed desire for more and better services, getting people to and from where they want to go.

“I am not in any way indifferent to the long-standing financial challenges which many of our residents find themselves wrestling with on a daily basis.

“My argument is simply that the collective benefits of a better bus network vastly outweigh the costs to households, with less than 10p a day on average releasing £11million of public transport value, unclogging our roads, cleaning up our air, and massively increasing better access to the wealth of social and economic opportunities that our region presents.

“I think that is a price worth paying and I do not want to leave anyone behind.”

Most of the representatives of councils in the county said they supported the increase to improve bus services, but said they recognised the concerns some people would have about the rise.

Cllr Bridget Smith, the Liberal Democrat leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “This was debated by my group at length. The consensus was supportive of the mayoral precept as in South Cambridgeshire, like many other parts of Cambridgeshire, we have a really poor transport system.

“We know this drives inequality and inequality drives poverty. In a time of the cost of living crisis, public transport is more important than ever.

“We have to make sure all residents have ready and affordable access to education, training and leisure.”

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said the Combined Authority was in the “unusual position” of being able to discuss expanding bus services.

She said: “If you look across England, almost everywhere people, particularly in rural areas, are facing a reduction in their bus service.

“Obviously nothing is free. We also know that costs are going up across the board for families and for government; I know just how difficult this year’s budget round has been at the county council.

“Everybody is under pressure trying to maintain things they are doing, let alone expanding them - it is really hard.

“One thing different about this precept is it is going to deliver an improvement for our residents rather than just trying to stop things getting worse.”

Cllr Mohammed Farooq, the Peterborough First leader of Peterborough City Council, believed the “benefits outweigh the burden it brings to residents” and supported the increase.

However, Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, said she could not support the increase.

She said: “My view is devolution was and should be about receiving funding and powers from government - not a new excuse to tax local people.

“We are given significant funds and I feel we should attempt to live within our means.”

Cllr Bailey blamed the failure to win government funding for bus improvements at a time when other authorities had been given “tens of millions of pounds”.

She said: “I cannot support the vision of buses being the answer for future transport. We need something much more radical for our 21st century area. This is not the right answer and taxing people to deliver it is not the answer.”

The mayor said the Combined Authority was not just about buses, but said he wanted to see the area “get the basics right”.

Cllr Nethsingha said the Combined Authority was one of the many authorities who bid for the transport funding mentioned by Cllr Bailey who were not successful. She said the authority did receive some funding in the second round.

The mayoral precept increase and the Combined Authority budget were both approved by a majority of the board members.

It came the day after a Best Value Notice was issued to the authority by the government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).

This notice is a formal notification that the government has concerns regarding the authority and wants it to engage with the government to provide assurance of improvement.

A long-running code of conduct investigation found last year that the mayor had brought his role into disrepute and breached rules on civility.

DLUHC noted this investigation had finally been concluded but said “embedding cultural change across the organisation and ensuring that it is having the desired, long-term impacts is likely to take time”.

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