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Second protest rally over proposed Cambridge road charge to make the case for a referendum

Thousands of people are expected to join the latest rally in Cambridge on road charging as the clamour for a referendum on the issue grows.

Campaigners preparing to march on Sunday have been buoyed by support from the GMB Union, which says it is representing its members, many of whom “are low-paid, frontline, key workers who keep the economy running and may well end up being penalised”.

Congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge last year. Picture: davidjohnsonphotographic.co.uk
Congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge last year. Picture: davidjohnsonphotographic.co.uk

The rally will start at midday from three locations in Cambridge before converging on Parker’s Piece for speeches at 1pm.

The event aims to raise awareness of a petition calling for a referendum on the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s plans for a weekday road charge in the city, which has so far been signed by nearly 13,000 people.

The petition will be debated by Cambridgeshire County Council next month, with campaigners stating it is the “only way to ensure a decision is reached democratically”.

Shyanne Roeloffs, co-chair of the Cambridgeshire Residents’ Group, which is organising the rally along with Cambs Against Congestion Charge and Mill Road Traders’ Association, said: “We are encouraged that thousands of Cambridge residents are waking up to the reality of this harmful congestion charge.

“The people it will impact most are the elderly, the poorest, the day-to-day workers and people living in villages around Cambridge. It is also a real threat to Cambridge’s hundreds of small businesses. Because this punitive tax is expected to impact the whole of society, we have had individuals from a myriad of backgrounds put their hands up to speak.”

Speakers at the event include a representative from the GMB union, local politicians, small business owners and individuals.

They include independent South Cambridgeshire District Council councillor Dan Lentell, Cambridge trader Neil Mackay and the chair of the Mill Road Traders’ Association, Shapour Meftah.

Ms Roeloffs said: “A petition for a referendum on the congestion charge is being put forth to Cambridgeshire County Council on March 21, and we hope to raise awareness of this petition at the rally. Additionally, the rally has been organised to send a powerful message to local councillors – none of whom was elected on the basis of implementing this charge.

“The lack of transparency and accountability are a major concern, and therefore many residents see a referendum as the only way to ensure a decision is reached democratically.”

The petition, launched by the Cambs Against Congestion Charge group, had gathered 12,733 signatures by Monday.

Organisers say they hope to have reached more than 25,000 signatures by the time the petition closes on March 10. All signatories have to be within the Cambridgeshire area for the petition to be considered valid.

The GCP has been consulting on plans to provide cheaper bus fares and more frequent services with longer operating hours, funded by a road charge on motorists in a Sustainable Travel Zone across Cambridge, but excluding Park & Ride sites.

Car drivers would be charged £5 to drive in the zone between 7am and 7pm on weekdays, while van drivers would pay £10 and lorry drivers would pay £50. The GCP says the money raised would enable flat bus fares of £1 within the city or £2 from outside, up to a maximum of £4 across the upgraded network. There would be exemptions, but not for electric vehicles.

Keiron Johnson, chair of the Cambs Against Congestion Charge group, told the Cambridge Independent: “They [the GCP] have done everything to try and push it through without having much opposition. They’ve got such a low number of responses given the number of people living here – and that’s shocking.”

The petition reached the 3,000-signature threshold that is required for it to come before the county council back in November.

Congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge last year. Picture: davidjohnsonphotographic.co.uk
Congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge last year. Picture: davidjohnsonphotographic.co.uk

Meanwhile, the GCP has been analysing responses to its consultation.

A GCP spokesperson said: “In total, we received 24,071 responses to an online survey about the proposals which, in addition to the 100-plus stakeholder responses and feedback from 50 focus group events, means we have a huge amount of data to work through to ensure we thoroughly understand the nuance and opinions people have.

“We have a duty to read, understand and react to that feedback , so it is only right that we don’t rush to conclusions but listen and take time to understand people’s views and not prejudge the outcome. The results of the consultation will be included in a final report on the proposals and next steps, scheduled for the GCP executive board in June 2023.

“At that time, the GCP board will make a recommendation to Cambridgeshire County Council on whether to proceed with a scheme.”

A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found 84 per cent were against road-based user charging.

However, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Cambridgeshire Sustainable Travel Alliance found 59 per cent of respondents were opposed and 39 per cent supported road-charging.

Last year, two rallies were held in the city about the charge – one against and one for it. Sunday’s rally will leave from Sainsbury’s car park in Brooks Road, Tesco’s car park in Newmarket Road and Shire Hall car park on Castle Hill at midday and head to Parker’s Piece.

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