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New controversy over data on Mill Road bridge consultation in Cambridge

The majority of duplicate responses submitted during the consultation over Mill Road bridge consultation opposed the closure, it has emerged.

Bus Lane camera's and signage on Mill Road bridge . Picture: Keith Heppell. (52526027)
Bus Lane camera's and signage on Mill Road bridge . Picture: Keith Heppell. (52526027)

Campaigners claimed the data called into question whether the results of future consultations by Cambridgeshire County Council can be trusted.

The council’s highways and transport committee voted on July 27 to reopen the bridge, with a full review of future options to be undertaken.

It took a casting vote from the chair, Labour’s Cllr Gerri Bird, who had been particularly concerned about disabled access, to make the decision.

The decision followed months of wrangling and debate over the Experimental Traffic Regulation Order (ETRO) imposed in June 2020 to encourage social distancing during the pandemic.

The controversial trial closure to all traffic, except buses, cyclists and pedestrians had been due to be discussed in February, but this was extended after attempts to “skew” the consultation were detected by the county council.

It said that a “large number of duplicate entries” had been received to its survey on the issue – meaning quantitative data from it could not be taken into account when determining if the closure should be made permanent.

The Cambridge Independent has since seen the data – initially released to Conservative Friends of Cycling – which shows that six browser IDs were responsible for more than 10 responses each – a total of 173 responses between them. All but one of these IDs opposed the closure.

Taking these responses alone, 85.4 per cent strongly opposed/opposed the closure and 14.6 per cent supported or strongly supported. Just 2.4 per cent showed no view either way.

Analysis of responses from browsers that made three to 10 responses were not as skewed, but did also show results opposed to the filter. This compared to overall support for closure in the whole data, with 51.7 per cent supporting or strongly supporting the closure and 45.6 per cent opposed or strongly opposed.

Paul Lythgoe, chair of the campaign group Mill Road for People, which supports the closure, said: “This analysis confirms what we have suspected all along, since all the research we have done shows clear support for the bus gate.

“It is utterly disgraceful that democracy was compromised in this way and Cambridgeshire County Council have some serious questions to answer here.

“Why did they not do this analysis themselves? Why are their consultation procedures not more robust? And how can we be sure that residents will be able to trust the outcome of the next consultation process?”

Mill Road hairdresser Piero D’Angelico, who campaigned for the bridge to reopen, citing the impact on businesses, pointed out that traders had highlighted that the consultation was open to abuse in December.

He said: “We did inform the council when we found out the consultation could be taken multiple times and we got the response back that it was nothing to worry about because they could filter out any duplicates.

“If people have taken this consultation multiple times to ask for the bridge to be reopened it is beyond my control. I would prefer it if people hadn’t done that. But this should have been easy for the council to pick out, according to them. The traders are not responsible as a group for this and it is 100 per cent the council’s fault that they made a consultation that did not work.

“I don’t know why there is such a fuss about this because they (the council) never took into consideration the survey we collected of people who wanted the bridge opened.

“Now that the bridge is open, Mill Road is really vibrant, really alive. And there’s no traffic jams, no huge amount of traffic. Definitely not 14,000 cars a day like some people are saying.

“We have taken videos at rush hour that show the traffic is moving and people are cycling safely.”

A Cambridgeshire County Council spokesperson said: “In July, the highways and transport committee voted to reopen Mill Road bridge which had been closed to all traffic except pedestrians and cyclists as part of a year-long trial to encourage people to travel more actively.

“The decision was made on the basis that further consultation on the future of Mill Road, including the option of reintroducing a closure of the bridge would be undertaken.

“To assist the committee with their decision making, a consultation on the bridge closure was carried out in late 2020. We received a high level of response with over 3,500 survey responses and 900 emails. Most feedback from the public was thoughtful and raised useful points which were shared with the committee.

“In line with best practice, and to make sure it was accessible to as many people as possible, an open survey format was used. Unfortunately, this meant that the system was open to mischief-making – but duplicate entries and patterns can be spotted, as they were in this case.

“Although potential duplicate responses could be removed from totals, it is not good practice to do this as it could remove answers which have been given in good faith. For example, a couple in the same house may use their iPad to respond separately to a consultation, or colleagues may have made separate responses through the same server if they logged on using work IT networks (this is common in the case of large employers like universities). As such, given the number of the questionable responses and the level of uncertainty this created, qualitative information was the focus of consultation feedback to the committee with quantitative information included in the report for the sake of transparency.”

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