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Why conservation charity Cambridge Past Present and Future is opposed to GCP’s current road-charging plans

Midweek visitors to Wandlebury Country Park and Coton Countryside Reserve from Cambridge could reduce by a third if road charging was introduced, says Cambridge Past, Present and Future.

The independent charity says it also remains unconvinced that a significant increase in buses in the historic city centre can be achieved without detrimental impacts on heritage, and for cyclists and pedestrians.

A new Wandlebury viewpoint at sunset. Picture: Cambridge PPF
A new Wandlebury viewpoint at sunset. Picture: Cambridge PPF

Cambridge PPF agrees that action is needed to reduce congestion but warns a weekday road charge would “have a significant impact on our charity and its service users”.

For that reason, the charity says it objects to the proposals in the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Making Connections consultation.

Cambridge PPF chief executive James Littlewood wrote: “We support measures to reduce single occupancy car journeys where and when there is congestion, subject to the impacts of such measures on heritage, landscape and the environment and on our charitable activities and service users.”

The GCP’s plans to introduce road charging to fund a new bus network have proved hugely controversial, with marches being held both in protest and in support of the proposals for a Sustainable Travel Zone. Under the proposals, car drivers would be charged £5 to drive in the city between 7am and 7pm on weekdays and van drivers would face a £10 charge, with lorry drivers paying £50, and some exemptions in place. The money would help to fund bus services that the GCP says would be cheaper, more reliable and operate for longer.

Cambridge PPF surveyed its users during November and December to gain a better understanding of the likely impacts of the proposals.

It found that three quarters of its users come from within the proposed charging zone and therefore “potentially affected”.

James Littlewood, chief executive of Cambridge Past, Present & Future
James Littlewood, chief executive of Cambridge Past, Present & Future

The survey found that a high percentage of car drivers in the zone “are likely to stop using our services or reduce their use of them”. This, the charity says, has the potential to result in an around 33 per cent reduction in midweek service users from within the charge zone.

“People who are on lower incomes, people who are unable to cycle and people who need to transport items will be disproportionately affected. In other words, people who are on lower incomes, people who have health problems, people with children/pets – these are often the people who most benefit from the well-being provided by our parks,” said Mr Littlewood, adding that “as well as losing current service users, it will make it harder to attract new service users and volunteers from within the charging zone”.

However, he said the charity would support a peak-time road charge that operated between 7am and 10am.

Mr Littlewood continued: “Our parks are very busy at weekends and the Wandlebury car park can often be full. For this reason we have been trying to encourage more midweek visitors. An unintended consequence of the proposed congestion charge would be to reduce midweek visits and increase visits at weekends.

“This would exacerbate an existing problem and likely result in the need to expand the size of car parking. In summary, a 7am-7pm Monday to Friday congestion charge would have a significant impact on our charity and its service users. For this reason, we object to this proposal. The significant impact could be avoided if the charge did not apply between 10.30am and 3pm and therefore we could support a charge which applied only during 7am-10am.

Wandlebury from Magog
Wandlebury from Magog

“Very few of our service users travel to our country parks during rush hour. Peak visiting hours are 11am-2pm, when generally there is low congestion in Cambridge.”

The charity made clear that it is “yet to see any evidence that a significant increase in buses in the historic centre can be achieved without detrimental impacts on heritage and active travellers”.

Mr Littlewood said in the charity’s response to the GCP consultation: “For this reason, we reserve our position until such time as detailed plans are put forward which show how conflicts between buses, heritage and active travellers will be avoided.

“Our concerns about the capacity of the historic centre of Cambridge to cope with the increased number of buses remains.

“Totalling the number of buses per hour as shown on your maps of connections to Cambridge city centre indicates an increase from 81 buses per hour in the pre-Covid network to 119 buses per hour with the proposed improvements.

“The city centre reaching capacity would have a detrimental impact on active travel. People will only walk or cycle if they feel they can do so safely. The historic streets of the city centre cannot be widened and, by sharing them with buses, they will provide a poor environment for pedestrians and cyclists.”

The charity is calling on the GCP to conduct a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) to ensure the transport body understands the impact of the proposals on the world class heritage of central Cambridge. It says the GCP can then amend the proposals “to avoid and minimise the impact”.

“An HIA may require the consideration of alternatives, which reduce the number of buses in the city’s historic core,” says Mr Littlewood.

Wandlebury Country Park
Wandlebury Country Park

The charity also says the GCP “does not seem to take into account” the two years it will need to make the Enhanced Partnership deliver lower fares in early 2024 under its current timeline.

In November, when asked to provide a timetable around the introduction of franchising, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, which is the transport authority, could only say that “work was continuing” on the business case.

A report to the Combined Authority board said it is assessing – and has been since 2019 – whether bus franchising would be the “best way” to deliver a customer-focused public transport network.

It said the pandemic made this assessment difficult, but that it still considers that franchising “could” deliver the best bus service.

Mr Littlewood added: “We consider that reducing the number of car parking spaces within the zone should be considered as a significant element of the proposal. This approach has been successfully applied in other cities, such as Copenhagen.

“Or we would prefer to see a workplace parking levy, such as in Nottingham, which better focuses on the cause of the problem (commuter traffic) without unintended consequences for other travellers.”

The GCP previously ruled out a workplace parking levy after options that involved charging cars for driving in a zone were preferred to options involving additional or new parking charges in its 2017, 2019 and 2021 consultations on their plans.

Mr Littlewood concluded: “One of the main risks of your proposals is that drivers decide to pay a charge rather than change their behaviour. This would result in mainly empty buses and little change to congestion. The advantage of reducing car parking spaces is that it is guaranteed to reduce car traffic.

“Any attempts to reduce car parking spaces would need to be accompanied by an expansion of residents’ parking to cover most of the city.

“The results of our survey indicate that for non-commuting journeys very few people will change their mode of travel as a result of a congestion charge, instead they are more likely to change their behaviour by not doing activities, doing them less or, for those that can afford it, simply paying the charge. Many people who can cycle or use public transport are already doing so.”

The Making Connections consultation closed on December 23, with the GCP receiving more than 24,000 responses. The results will feature in a final report on the proposals, scheduled for the GCP executive board in June 2023.

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