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Opinion: ‘The GCP’s road-charging proposals for Cambridge are the wrong answer to the wrong question’

Sam Davies, an independent Cambridge city councillor for Queen Edith’s ward, offers her thoughts on the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) proposals to impose road charges from 7am-7pm on weekdays - priced at £5 per day for a car and more for larger vehicles - to fund a better bus network.

Cllr Sam Davies, an independent Cambridge city councillor for Queen Edith's ward
Cllr Sam Davies, an independent Cambridge city councillor for Queen Edith's ward

The GCP’s Making Connections consultation has closed and is now being analysed, but the public discussions will undoubtedly continue.

As a city councillor, and particularly as an Independent, I have little formal say on the process or its outcome. However, I do hear from residents, and this has led me to a broader conclusion.

I’m not interested in knockabout insults or flinging around labels that try to impose simplistic transport-based identities on people. I have tried to look at the arguments fairly and see the points of agreement, rather than dramatising the disagreements.

It seems to me that there are four big themes.

Firstly, and crucially, we need to understand what these proposals are all about, and it's this: facilitating our area’s continued rapid growth. We can boil down the GCP’s Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ) proposals to one simple question: should residents and businesses be charged to drive into/out of/within the city to facilitate another decade or more of rapid employment-led housing growth?

Remember, the GCP’s sole reason for being is growth. It says exactly that on the front page of their website. But, as I have commented previously, residents have never been asked if they actually want – or consent to – this scale of growth.

People are being asked to pay for an improved bus network, which will allegedly ‘unlock the next phase of growth’. But many of them simply don’t feel like they are benefitting from that growth.

They also don’t trust what’s being proposed. They don’t trust the organisation proposing it. And they don’t feel it’s being proposed with their interests at heart.

Objectors at a congestion charge rally on on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge, made their feelings known. Picture: David Johnson
Objectors at a congestion charge rally on on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge, made their feelings known. Picture: David Johnson

My second observation is that these proposals seem to have been drawn up without reference to the concept of the ‘Overton Window’ of political possibilities. This is the range of ideas that the public is willing to consider and accept in a given place at a particular time.

In a nutshell, the GCP’s proposals aren't solving a problem that people recognise, nor are they offering a solution that fits their understanding of an accepted problem.

For example, people might recognise congestion as a problem; but the proposed STZ doesn’t look like it’s targeting congestion because the operating hours extend well beyond any period of congestion and its format includes trips away from, as well as into, the city.

Similarly, people might recognise pollution as a problem; but the proposed STZ doesn’t look like it’s targeting pollution because it includes low emissions vehicles such as motorbikes and electric vehicles.

Worse still, the proposals are couched in language designed to make people feel bad about their current transport decisions. To many people this instinctively feels like unfair criticism, because what the data tells us is that Cambridge’s residents already make responsible transport choices – the ONS’ 2021 census data shows that Cambridge continued to report a far higher level of walking and cycling commuters (49 per cent) than the national average (14 per cent). Buses already account for 7 per cent of Cambridge commuting journeys, not much different to the 9 per cent achieved in London.

The GCP’s future bus network from its Making Connections consultation
The GCP’s future bus network from its Making Connections consultation

So Cambridge’s residents are actually already making a pretty concerted attempt to travel sustainably, despite the lack of high-quality public transport. The GCP focuses on its data that about 53 per cent of journeys in the morning peak start within the STZ, presumably to indicate that Cambridge residents are irresponsibly hopping in their cars for short journeys which could be made by other means.

What it has not been highlighting is the qualifier that only “over a third of these journeys” are wholly within the STZ. In other words, only 17 per cent of journeys in the morning peak are those short ones made by Cambridge residents staying within the zone.

I should also draw attention to pretty much every housing or employment planning application in Greater Cambridge in the last 20 years having claimed that the application will not have any negative impact on congestion.

It’s nearly always suggested that there is sufficient capacity within the road network to absorb the additional journeys generated.

Of course, the evidence in front of everyone’s eyes is that this is not the case. But the planning system has signed off on all the development regardless, in what we might regard as ‘gaslighting’ the population.

Now we are told there isn’t the capacity, and there is a problem. And apparently, the only way it can be solved is by signing up to the GCP’s proposals.

Traffic on East Road in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Traffic on East Road in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

So much of the process and the politics is alienating people who might otherwise willingly co-operate with measures to address congestion or pollution, if they believed that was the purpose of the measures (rather than the GCP’s goal of generating the maximum revenue possible).

Look at what the top choices were in previous rounds of GCP consultation (below): a ‘pollution charge’ and ‘a flexible charge to drive at the busiest times’. That’s not what we’re being offered now, which makes people question why they would trust that this process is being conducted in good faith.

My third theme is that these proposals overstate their sustainability credentials.

Sustainability has three components – economic, environmental and social – which I’ll look at in turn.

The economic angle concerns the revenue generated by the charge being overwhelmingly directed at funding an extended bus service. However, studies have shown that if you want to improve productivity via public transport investment, you adopt trams or light rail, not buses. Tram or light rail options, once built, are less vulnerable than a bus network to interference and service reductions instigated by politicians’ or operators’ whims.

I’m concerned that the financial interests of the city’s many small businesses and public sector/not-for-profit organisations (particularly those outside the historic city centre) are not being adequately captured by this consultation process, or indeed by the GCP’s activities more widely.

I have received impassioned emails from local schools detailing the staff recruitment and retention difficulties they foresee if the proposals go ahead. And it is much easier for ‘big business’ to get its views heard (both as individual organisations and through lobby groups such as Cambridge Ahead) than it is for our small independent traders.

I also believe the financial cost of the bureaucracy underpinning the scheme is probably understated. We are being primed to expect a patchwork of exemptions and reimbursements based on multiple factors including income, health status, profession, vehicle type and the reason for the trip. This will of course divert money raised away from running the buses which are the very point of the exercise!

The GCP’s future bus network from its Making Connections consultation
The GCP’s future bus network from its Making Connections consultation

Moving onto the environmental aspect of sustainability, the GCP originally had three stated transport goals:

1. To reduce the number of miles travelled;

2. For those miles still travelled, to encourage more active travel and public transport use;

3. For those remaining trips made by private vehicles, to encourage less polluting forms of vehicle.

The STZ proposals contain nothing that will contribute towards achieving the first goal, and indeed, at a meeting earlier this year, a GCP officer confirmed that that goal has been quietly abandoned. I guess that’s because the separation of planning and transport powers across multiple local government organisations, and the extraordinarily high rate of population growth, mean that it would be too challenging to achieve. But I think it’s a great shame. We hear a lot of mention of low traffic neighbourhoods, but we should be aiming for more: liveable (15 to 20-minute) neighbourhoods.

Although Cambridge is still a relatively compact city, amenities and different demographics are very unevenly distributed. At the moment, it is much easier to live sustainably in Petersfield (which has a younger population and many facilities in easy walking/cycling reach) than it is in, say, Queen Edith’s or Abbey. So any discussion about transport proposals should be accompanied by firm commitments about how they will be better integrated with decisions about land use, with the aim of enabling more of us to live more locally more of the time.

With regard to encouraging more active travel and public transport use, we know the vast majority of the money raised by the STZ charge will be spent on buses. I am very concerned that any funding available for active travel and supporting measures will be too small and too restricted in what it can be spent on.

If the GCP is serious about encouraging public transport and active travel, there are many factors underpinning the user experience which require investment – not just obvious infrastructure projects like cycle routes themselves, but also pothole and pavement repairs; bus shelters with seating and real-time information; secure cycle parking; better street lighting; and more police and parking enforcement officers.

There’s nothing like enough money allocated from the STZ pot to achieve that right now.

And the GCP’s third goal of encouraging less polluting forms of vehicle? This is simply not supported by the proposed inclusion in the charging regime of electric vehicles, motorbikes and mopeds.

Finally, there’s the issue of how people’s attitudes to making sustainable transport choices might be affected negatively by the introduction of a flat, per-day charge. At the moment, the data indicates that residents make choices which optimise cost/time/convenience, moving between modes depending on their priorities/constraints for each particular journey.

I haven’t seen any consideration of the possibility that the STZ charge may actually encourage some drivers to make less thoughtful choices about which mode they choose for each journey, along the lines of: “Well, I’ve paid my £5 for today, so I may as well get value for money from it”.

Cambridge Biomedical Campus has grown fast. Picture: CBC
Cambridge Biomedical Campus has grown fast. Picture: CBC

Turning to the social aspect of sustainability, the debate has seen two conflicting perspectives. The GCP argues that the STZ proposal will help the poorest households, which are least able to afford to run a car and which have most to gain from a better bus network. However, the GMB union and a number of councillors have already publicly spoken out against it.

My own concern is that the STZ proposals will accelerate the development of a two-speed Cambridge. For a start, companies in Cambridge’s tech sector already offer their staff a range of generous perks, and many will simply add STZ charges incurred by staff into that package in a way that other smaller businesses, public sector organisations and voluntary groups will simply not be able to replicate.

I also struggle to understand how the STZ proposals take proper account of the value of time for people on low incomes.

For example, let’s assume a journey which currently takes 30 minutes by car might take 60 minutes by bus (including travelling to the stop and waiting for a service). That adds an hour (at least) to a working day. That hour has a value: it might make the difference between being able to take the children to an after-school activity, volunteer at a local community group, or just rest after a day’s work.

Moreover, under the proposals, continuing to use the car would cost £5 (plus running expenses), perhaps equivalent to 40 minutes work on a minimum wage. Swapping to bus would cost £4 return (25 minutes on a minimum wage) plus a degree of inconvenience plus the risk of a service running late or not showing up.

For someone in secure employment at a professional salary, the risks and inconvenience may not be that material – they are likely to have flexible working hours, the ability to switch to working from home, and a generally high degree of autonomy about how/where/when they get the job done. None of these will apply to someone in insecure employment or whose physical presence is required at a set location between set hours.

The last of my four themes is how we might think about Plan B.

The STZ consultation would have been more informative and more constructive if it hadn’t been based on the premise that “there is no Plan B”. That is an awful way to engage with an understandably concerned population.

It would have been much more helpful to have put forward a range of scenarios, with a sliding scale of interventions, so people could have assessed the costs and benefits of each.

A protester at the congestion charge rally in Cambridge. Picture: David Johnson
A protester at the congestion charge rally in Cambridge. Picture: David Johnson

As a result, I’m unsurprised that these proposals have been met with such a hostile response in many quarters, and I believe they will be politically undeliverable. But more importantly, I fear they have also created a huge obstacle for future proposals to overcome. This is a real concern, because we do urgently need to devise deliverable ways of addressing the climate emergency.

I don’t pretend to have a complete answer to this, but I do think it’s possible to identify key principles on which Plan B should be based.

Firstly, it should prioritise individual and community wellbeing and resilience – not growth.

Secondly, it should be holistic. Some excellent work has been done on transport demand and elasticities which lays out the many variables which can be part of the solution. This is a very different approach to just attempting to sell buses as ‘the car alternative’, with aggressive population and employment growth as givens.

Thirdly, our Plan B should be based on a ‘polluter pays’ principle. This means introducing a workplace parking levy for large organisations. Not only would this be a much better fit with the source of the problem the STZ is trying to fix; but it would also reduce the administrative costs of running the scheme because parking spaces are known and predictable, in a way that individual daily journeys are not.

Annual exemptions could then be given to spaces (at schools, hospitals, etc), not individuals. There is plenty of encouraging research on the impact of the Nottingham levy which is now 10 years old.

Finally, the plan should be future-proofed. One of the problems with the STZ proposals is that there are no guarantees about how the charge, the bus fares or the bus network might change in future. It’s not possible for the GCP to make such guarantees, as it won’t be the body which has to negotiate with the bus companies, or deal with the fall-out from changes in party political attitudes to a bus-based approach.

There’s also nothing about how an STZ charge might fit with any possible council tax precept to support bus services levied by the mayor of the Combined Authority, or how it might evolve in the event of a national road pricing scheme, both of which are already under discussion.

So in conclusion, I believe what we have here is a flawed answer to the wrong question. The STZ proposals are all about how to maximise revenue capture to fund a bus service. This is aimed at demonstrating to the government that the GCP is ‘unlocking’ growth. What we really want are proposals aimed at giving people happier, healthier, better lives.

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