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Tim Bick on Cambridge congestion charge debate: We want to bring people together around an effective transport scheme

Opinion | Cllr Tim Bick, chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership joint assembly

Cambridge Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Tim Bick
Cambridge Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Tim Bick

24,071 is a lot of people. That was how many people participated in the consultation survey last year on the GCP’s Making Connections proposals.

They said a lot. This is vital feedback. It was absolutely the intention to gain it. It is a rich resource and will shape what happens next on this subject.

The top lines are not unexpected. There was overwhelming support for the benefits to come from the proposals in terms of improved public transport and ongoing investment in better active travel – cycling and walking – facilities. But those who didn’t like the means of achieving it – the Sustainable Travel Zone (STZ) – outnumbered those who did. If there was a notable feature of this it was that the gap was not as great as it had been talked up to be – and in particular, among young people, support outweighed opposition.

If you isolate the two aspects from each other, it is not a shock that ‘sticks’ are less popular than ‘carrots’. That does not detract from the conclusion that the original proposal needs rethinking.

Those who opposed the STZ divide between those who simply don’t like it and those who expressed particular issues with that part of the proposal. When the GCP’s joint assembly met last week to scrutinise the results and advise on the way forward, the focus was therefore on exploring these issues, to see if the original proposals could be changed to address them.

We are talking about a complex set of proposals. Some changes would risk undermining the whole point of a scheme and would either be hard to implement or so difficult that the initiative would drown in an administrative jungle. But others look like they might provide flexibility to accommodate some of the feedback received.

Of course we should be mindful that the more the original STZ proposal is modified, the less it may succeed in reducing congestion and the fewer alternative travel choices it may be able to support. We have therefore asked for some alternative illustrations to be developed for further consideration, which can be tested against our criteria: for reducing congestion, for enabling the public and active transport improvements, and for fairness.

Three allied messages from the consultation were picked up from the consultation. We underlined the need for an effective discount scheme for those on low incomes to be properly fleshed out. We wanted fuller consideration of the balance of opportunities and disadvantages for businesses. And we need to be satisfied that as part of the big increase in funding for bus services that operators are brought under public control through franchising.

This is an endeavour to bring people together around an effective scheme. It may well require compromises to get there. But it will still need to respond to a future in which our area is going to struggle more and more – economically, in quality of life, and access to opportunity – without a big switch of journeys from motor vehicles to public and active transport.

People have asked why we don’t just look somewhere else for the money to achieve what needs to be done. The answer is that this is not only a question of money. We also need a tool to discourage car trips and reduce congestion in order to provide the road space for reliable extra bus services and safer walking and cycling. The one without the other will be dysfunctional and waste money. Because the STZ promotes behaviour change as well as generating funding, it remains central to the discussion – even if other sources of funding could be added to it in the future.

The massive public consultation has now set in motion a process of review, as it should do. It cannot wish away the underlying challenge, but it has the potential to modify the plan.

With the bigger picture of climate change, astronomical fuel and car costs, and the cost-of-living crisis, it seems that this is a logical time for openness to different ways of getting round and the means of improving the alternatives. Let’s see.

Cllr Tim Bick chairs the joint assembly of the Greater Cambridge Partnership and leads the Liberal Democrats on Cambridge City Council.

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