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Public transport shake-up funded by road charge is ‘last bus in town’ to bring improvements to Cambridge

Plans to shake-up public transport in Greater Cambridge funded by a £5 charge must deliver “what is promised” to restore trust that an expanded bus network is the solution.

Traffic congestion in East Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
Traffic congestion in East Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Greater Cambridge Partnership’s executive board has agreed to ask the public for their views on the plan this autumn described as “last bus in town” to bring improvements.

But admitted that the consultation must reach the “silent majority” whose concerns have been exemplified by the recent bus cuts.

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent, the GCP’s executive board chair, Cllr Elisa Meschini, explained how “unbelievably abnormal, the normal is that people accept”.

The decision also comes hot on the heels of the recent announcement by Stagecoach East that it will cut 18 routes at the end of October because they are no longer commercially viable.

Cllr Meschini said: “They are sitting in the most ridiculous congestion and that’s normal because that’s life?

“They can’t go to so many places because they are not accessible and that’s seen as fine. Nobody’s protesting. Nobody’s signing petitions about that.

“These latest Stagecoach cuts are not the first, not the first in the last five years, and not the last in the next five years and I would guess significantly earlier.

“I have a friend who is going to lose her job because she can’t commute from a village anymore. She doesn’t drive, it isn’t cycle accessible and it’s a three to four hour walk.”

Cllr Meschini hit back at those who had started a petition against the plans for road charging, and said it had “restored the balance” in her view because what people were calling for was being offered by the GCP’s proposals.

People want “clean, sustainable, public transport first” and that’s what the plans are, she explained.

Traffic and users around Cambridge Railway Station. Picture: Keith Heppell. (59865507)
Traffic and users around Cambridge Railway Station. Picture: Keith Heppell. (59865507)

“This is the waters that we’re navigating, people want their services restored and they don’t want to suffer through the means necessary to put those services back but we have ways to alleviate that. We have ways to make it as painless as it possibly can be without finding the money down the back of the sofa,” Cllr Meschini said.

Cllr Meschini admitted that there’s been “a lot of jumping the gun” but promised “we will manage it”.

She responded directly to concerns raised about the timing of the proposals amid the current cost of living crisis.

“There’s a lot of people who have said ‘this is the worst possible moment to talk about it because of the current cost of living crisis’. These discussions are easier when everything is booming and people have trust, but the last time that happened I was a teenager,” said Cllr Meschini. “We have been waiting for a better time for 20 years.

“We have been waiting for the government to invest in high growth areas, and they don’t. They have once for us with the City Deal, and if that money goes, we won’t be able to do any more. We’ve reached the crunch point.”

She added: “If we decided to abandon these proposals right now and do nothing we would have to stand in front of you right now and defend the status quo as it is now. The current situation is completely indefensible.”

Her comments were echoed by board member, Cllr Dave Baigent who said the GCP’s proposals were the “last bus in town” to bring improvements, adding: “No government is going to throw another £500million at Cambridge. If we fail to achieve anything, they will take back what has not been used.”

The GCP is proposing to provide cheaper bus fares and more frequent services with longer operating hours, funded by daily charging for road users under its City Access plan.

Vehicle movements into, out of and within a proposed ‘Sustainable Travel Zone’ would incur a flat daily charge between 7am and 7pm on weekdays, although there would be some exemptions.

The GCP says ongoing revenue needs to be found and space must be created to deliver the major shake-up of the bus network, offering cheaper fares, more frequent services and longer operating hours.

Cllr Meschini said: “What made me decide that we have to go for this, and I’ve had a year and a bit now on the decision-making side of the process, just how unbelievably abnormal, the normal is that people accept.”

She said it was “extremely important” that the consultation goes ahead, but admitted that response rates to the GCP previous consultations were often “underwhelming”.

Cyclists and traffic congestion in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cyclists and traffic congestion in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We absolutely have to make sure that the silent majority, the unheard, are reached. It’s absolutely crucial and it’s been exemplified by the bus cuts,” she said. “It’s crucial we reach the communities who don’t think they have a voice. Your contribution is absolutely crucial.

“This has got to be one of the biggest and most extensive exercises and engagement that this region has ever seen.”

Cllr Meschini said there was time to look at the proposals, and time to analyse the responses to the consultation and it was important the people shared their thoughts.

She also urged people to challenge ‘misinformation’ and reiterated that a road charge would come after the public transport improvements were in place.

The Labour county council deputy leader added: “Time and again we have been told to ‘be bold’ and ‘take action’ to tackle the traffic clogging up our roads and the effects of climate change.

“These proposals represent a once in a generation opportunity to truly transform the way we all travel around the region.

“Together, we can create a transport network that works for everyone, with cheap and frequent bus services with longer operating hours to more locations – including employment sites and rural communities – to restore faith in public transport as a real alternative to the car, and to provide an environmentally sustainable, reliable and competitive choice for everyone’s journeys.

“I encourage everyone to carefully consider the ambitious package of measures we are proposing when the public consultation launches this autumn.”

There has been a huge backlash to the GCP’s proposals, with two petitions against road charging gathering more than 20,000 signatures since the plans were revealed.

Many residents and commuters have argued that it is not feasible for everyone to use buses to travel everywhere, leaving them with a major bill in a city with high living costs.

University Sports Centre city council election count Lucy Nethsingha with Elisa Meschini . Picture: Keith Heppell. (59838225)
University Sports Centre city council election count Lucy Nethsingha with Elisa Meschini . Picture: Keith Heppell. (59838225)

The inclusion of Addenbrooke’s Hospital and The Rosie within the charging zone has also prompted anger. South Cambridgeshire District Council member Daniel Lentell quit the Liberal Democrat party over its inclusion.

The proposals for a congestion charge in Cambridge have been met with backlash from some, including Conservative councillors in the area.

Following the decision to press ahead with the consultation, the Conservative Council Group Leaders issued a joint statement saying “thousands of people were being ignored” by the board’s decision to move the proposals forward.

The statement said: “Pursuing this policy, particularly in the current economic climate, is irresponsible and will have terrible impacts on the lives of many residents and businesses in Cambridge and the county as a whole.

“We have already heard from one company that they are abandoning plans to expand into Cambridge because of this proposed charge, meaning a loss of jobs to the area.

“Others have spoken about the need to re-evaluate and are considering redundancies if it is introduced. Have the hospitality and retail businesses in Cambridge not suffered enough recently due to the covid pandemic?”

The group said the decision on the scheme should be made by people in Cambridgeshire and called for a county wide referendum on the plans to be held.

A group named Cambridgeshire Residents Group Opposing the Cambridge Congestion Charge has also called for a referendum.

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