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Phil Rodgers: What next for Cambridge transport?

Well, what a mess.

More than nine years after the Cambridge City Deal was signed, after countless hours of work from council officers and consultants, hundreds upon hundreds of pages of plans, projections, and analysis, millions of pounds of expenditure, and the biggest consultation exercise that the city has ever seen, where are we now? Political support for the Sustainable Travel Zone has seemingly crumbled, leaving no clear way forward for the city to address its transport problems.

Phil Rogers. Picture: Keith Heppell
Phil Rogers. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Greater Cambridge Partnership’s STZ consultation showed that people wanted a better bus service, but didn’t want a congestion charge to pay for it. The GCP responded with a new plan that kept a congestion charge, but removed two thirds of the money for better buses. This was always going to be politically difficult.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the publicity that the GCP produced for its revised proposals didn’t focus on how much less money they were going to raise. But if you dig into the details in the outline business case document, the change is quite dramatic.

fdsfdsThe money that the GCP's original 7am-7pm road charge and revised peak-time charge was expected to raise for bus improvements. Graphic: Phil Rodgers
fdsfdsThe money that the GCP's original 7am-7pm road charge and revised peak-time charge was expected to raise for bus improvements. Graphic: Phil Rodgers

This graph shows the difference in money for bus improvements between the original and revised plans. The blue line shows how much money the original plan would have raised - rising to £80m per year by 2036. However, the revised plan - shown by the red line - raises less than a third of this amount.

It’s a similar story for the money for walking, cycling, and other non-bus measures, shown in the second graph. The sums involved are smaller, as most of the STZ money was intended for bus subsidies, but there’s still a sharp reduction, with about two-thirds of the funding gone.

Money for walking, cycling, and other non-bus measures that would be raised by the original and revised schemes. Graph: Phil Rodgers
Money for walking, cycling, and other non-bus measures that would be raised by the original and revised schemes. Graph: Phil Rodgers

Of course the other side of the coin is the reduction in the hours of the charge, the 50 “free days” allowance, and other changes to make the STZ more palatable. But after the polarising debate on the original plans, the changes don’t seem to have done very much to shift the balance of opinion. Many of those against the charge suspect that even a reduced scheme would soon be extended once it was in place.

We’ve already seen the electoral impact of the STZ. I remember a vivid example of this outside Sainsbury’s in Sidney Street during the last city council elections - a Labour candidate being harangued by the Big Issue seller about what a terrible idea the congestion charge was.

While anti-STZ candidates didn’t win any city council seats in May’s elections, the large vote swings and some greatly reduced majorities told their own story. Then the King’s Hedges by-election in July elected the first Conservative city councillor for many years, after a campaign almost entirely about the congestion charge. The vote-shifting potential of the issue was clear.

The first sign that the STZ was in serious trouble came at the end of August, when South Cambridgeshire Lib Dem councillors held a private meeting to agree their position on the new proposals. Lib Dem hopes of winning Parliamentary seats in Cambridgeshire weren’t the only consideration, but they were certainly a significant factor. After a “wide-ranging debate”, the meeting voted against supporting the revised STZ plans. This wasn’t announced immediately, but it was leaked to me soon afterwards, and was leading the local news not much later.

A few days later, it was the turn of Cambridge Labour councillors to decide what to do. After a meeting described to me as “fraught”, they announced that “we do not believe the current proposals on the STZ should proceed”. Really they had little choice, as the structure of the GCP means that the support of both Labour and the Lib Dems is needed. “We wanted to charge you £5 to drive in Cambridge and we’d have got away with it too if it hadn’t been for those pesky Lib Dems” isn’t really an election-winning slogan.

So what happens now to Greater Cambridge transport policy? One possibility - which I certainly wouldn’t discount completely - is that the STZ shambles back to life in some form. If something happens to shift the South Cambs Lib Dem council group back in favour of some sort of scheme, I think Cambridge Labour councillors might well go along with it. However this would be politically very difficult for the Lib Dems, both at the General Election and also at 2025’s county council elections.

Another possibility is that there will simply be a long pause until after the General Election, when a change of government might open up some new policy options. Alternatively, we could see the focus move away from congestion charging and towards other measures such as a workplace parking levy, bus franchising, or raising more money for public transport from council tax. We may get a better idea of which way things are going after the GCP board meeting on September 28.

What does all this mean for the GCP? Certainly, recent developments have been a hammer blow to its policy programme, and have done a good deal of damage to its reputation. Cambridge Green Party leader Naomi Bennett commented recently that the GCP’s brand is now so toxic that if they promised free ice cream and sunshine and puppies, residents would say no thank you.

Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire Anthony Browne Picture: Keith Heppell
Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire Anthony Browne Picture: Keith Heppell

South Cambs Conservative MP Anthony Browne is actively lobbying his colleagues in Westminster to dismantle the GCP entirely. Nevertheless the GCP has many projects underway involving a lot of central government money, with more in prospect. These include road reclassification for Cambridge - which could also involve controversial restrictions on car travel; an integrated parking strategy, which may extend residents’ parking schemes substantially; and a freight consolidation pilot scheme which will look at ways of reducing delivery traffic. The GCP is also facing a second “gateway review” to consider its progress so far and decide whether it should get another £200m of government funding.

I do think that a big part of the reason we’re in this mess is the sheer complexity of Cambridgeshire local government, with the County Council, the District Councils, the Combined Authority, and the GCP all part of the picture. And it’s no wonder that many people see the GCP as remote and unaccountable when there are no direct elections to it, both its board and assembly include unelected university and business representatives, and its policy programme often seems driven by council officials rather than elected councillors.

If we simply had one council for greater Cambridge whose members were directly accountable to the voters that elected them, the city might stand a better chance of resolving its transport problems in a way that would command public support.

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