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Opinion: After unprecedented backlash, GCP must scrap Cambridge congestion charge and consider these alternatives

Anthony Browne, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, offers his verdict on road-charging proposals for Cambridge.

Dismayed by the tumultuous vote against them in the Longstanton by-election, and facing a public backlash of unprecedented proportions, the proponents of the congestion charge have fallen back to their final line of defence. They claim that the congestion charge is the only way we can get better public transport in Cambridgeshire.

I’ve been campaigning for better transport initiatives since before I was elected. I can assure you that there are many things that can be done to improve transport that do not involve taxing everyone £5 every time they drive in Cambridge.

Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell

A point I made back in the 2019 General Election campaign was that we should first aim to make the most of our existing infrastructure. If that isn’t enough, we should then look at the least damaging and least expensive options first. Only as a last resort should we jump for the most expensive and most damaging options.

One example of under-used infrastructure are the existing Park & Ride sites. I visited Babraham Road Park & Ride just a few weeks ago – calling in on a workday morning when it should have been crammed with vehicles of drivers wanting to get into Cambridge. Instead, we found enough space to accommodate a good-sized football tournament. It was not atypical: daily usage data shows that Babraham is generally only around 60 to 65 per cent full. Clearly more needs to be done to make sure that is fully used to take more congestion out.

The GCP has a big budget to spend, and so tends to jump in with the most expensive options as a first resort. It is planning to spend around £150m on the Cambridge South East Transport busway, a wide bus-only road from a huge new car park at Babraham village through the iconic Gog Magog hills to the Biomedical Campus. I have strongly campaigned for this project to be vastly revamped. Having spoken to every single affected parish council, I know they feel they haven’t been listened to, and many residents and transport experts feel it is a complete waste of money.

The plans put forward by the Better Ways than Busway group of campaigners - an inbound bus lane on the A1307 with a short spur road to the Biomedical Campus at the end – is a far cheaper, less damaging option, and worthy of serious consideration. But the GCP refuses.

We should also ask the obvious question – why does it have to be buses? We already have two train lines running through South Cambridgeshire into the city, so why don’t we make the most of them? One of my first successful campaigns was to secure funding for Cambridge South station – I lobbied hard to see it included in the first Budget of the new Parliament, and it has been confirmed many times since.

A vision for Cambridge South station
A vision for Cambridge South station

I have also been campaigning to reopen the station at Harston and open a new station at Sawston and at the Wellcome Genome Campus at Hinxton. These are comparatively cheap options that could dramatically improve transport and reduce traffic.

There’s also a compelling case for reopening the railway line from Haverhill to Cambridge. Many of Cambridge's NHS staff and key workers live in Haverhill, so it could be a game- changer that cuts down traffic to the hospital sites that are so cruelly incorporated into the existing congestion charge plans.

The GCP could find the money for a feasibility study from their back pocket. Instead, the blinkers are on. When I have asked the GCP why they have not looked at this, I was told: “We don’t do railways.”

Finally, the Labour mayor, Dr Nik Johnson, has mooted the idea of a straightforward bus tax, added to council tax each year alongside your county, district and parish precepts, to pay for an improved bus service. Not a perfect idea, but at least avoids the main downsides of the congestion charge.

Others have urged reducing the number of daily commuters into the city by introducing a work-place parking levy, which has worked well elsewhere.

All these ideas show that the congestion charge is not the only way to improve transport in Cambridge, but just one option with lots of downsides.

I spent part of my weekend out spreading the message that the congestion charge could be coming. Unlike the GCP leaflets, which go out of their way to conceal the new driving tax behind all the touted improvements, our leaflets are honest about where the money is coming from - your pocket, and the pockets of anyone driving into or around Cambridge to get to work, school or the shops.

I’m going to stay in their corner and send this message back to the GCP. There are better ways than the congestion charge – so look at them first, and scrap this new driving tax now.

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