Cambridge divided and ruled on road user charging

We saw our first anti-road user/congestion charging protest marches in Cambridge today. The pro-Sustainable Transport Zone demonstration takes place on 10 December – in two weeks time.

Road user pricing and congestion charging is not new. The Ministry of Transport as was published its report on road pricing in 1964 you can read it here. London is the example most familiar to the public – and was not without its opponents. Yet unlike most other cities in the UK it has a light rail and underground network. (Get involved with the LRTA if you want one for your place)

There’s a strange party political reversal that’s happened. In the late 2000s, Conservative-led Cambridgeshire County Council made a bid for congestion charging when Gordon Brown’s Labour Government made some funding available. Today, it’s a Liberal Democrat and Labour partnership on the Greater Cambridge Partnership who are making the case for road user charging with funding approved by a Conservative Government. I wrote some of the historical background here.

Above – from New Civil Engineer on 01 Oct 2009

Anti-road user/congestion charging march in Cambridge – Sunday 27 Nov 2022

You can read Mike Scialom’s report in the Cambridge Independent here. I also filmed a short timelapse of the marchers from the Coldham’s Lane Sainsbury’s gathering point – one of three. It was shortly after a routine scan I had at Addenbrooke’s this morning, so being out and about I made my way to Relevant Records – where some protesters were gathering – for a coffee, before my weekly/fortnightly bread-and-cereal shop at Sainsbury’s. (There were no loaves of the type I wanted!) On the same day, the Sunday Times ‘flew the kite’ of a new national policy of road user charging.

I washed my hands of the GCP in terms of detailed scrutiny and asking questions back in 2021 when it became clear the new party-political leadership were not going to change direction away from busways and towards light rail – see my blogpost here which was the first meeting after the Conservatives lost political control of Cambridgeshire County Council – along with the mayoralty. These days I just point people towards meeting papers and reports.

I don’t blame residents in and around the city for getting together and protesting about a single part of the GCP’s overall package – i.e. the road charging proposals. I also don’t blame their opponents campaigning *for* the proposals overall – including the improved bus services and the aims to reduce transport pollution & traffic congestion.

Why The Greater Cambridge Partnership only has itself to blame

I concur with the now-retired Smarter Cambridge Transport.

“Our biggest regret is that we didn’t manage to prevent GCP from destroying public trust and goodwill by commissioning frustrating surveys and running tin-eared consultations, only to then progress the schemes they started out with. The massively over-engineered busway-plus-car-park plans they’ve devised so far please nobody, except anxious employers who have been offered nothing better.”

Smarter Cambridge Transport 08 Dec 2021

“Where did the Greater Cambridge Partnership come from?”

Central Government – they had to sign the whole thing off. You can read the 2014 press release here. The leaders of the component local councils (which *excluded* Huntingdonshire, East Cambridgeshire, and the market towns just over the county border such as Newmarket, Haverhill, Saffron Walden, and Royston – where many commuters into Cambridge live) were quoted in the press release as follows:

Councillor Steve Count, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said:

This is a real game changing deal for Greater Cambridge and the surrounding county. It will see a step change in transport infrastructure, create jobs and boost the local economy. The success of this will also be felt outside the Cambridge area so all our communities benefit.

Councillor Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge City Council, said:

We cannot risk transport in Cambridge grinding to a standstill given the damage that would cause to the lives of local people, and to the firms behind our growing local economy. Signing this deal signals our intention as the new administration at the City Council to play our full part in joint work by the 3 councils to unlock housing, transport and skills investment and improve the quality of life for everyone in and around Cambridge.

Councillor Ray Manning, Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, said:

The deal marks a new era for the area. It will unlock millions of pounds of funding to help us tackle the transport problems we face. This is the key factor to ensuring our economy continues to thrive and even more new jobs can be created. Signing the deal also marks the start of further hard graft with us and our partners. We will now be developing transport schemes which can both be delivered quickly and which will see benefits for our residents and businesses straight away.

As 2014 was the year when Labour won political control of Cambridge City Council from the rapidly-declining Cambridge Liberal Democrats (compare their seats from 2010 to 2020 – it makes for grim viewing for their party), Cllr Tim Bick, the outgoing leader of the City Council ended up being Chair of the Assembly (which was supposed to be an oversight/recommendation forum – you can read the opening meeting papers here) with Cllr Lewis Herbert taking responsibility for a deal he played no real part in negotiating. And these were the original projects. Feel free to browse through Item 7 App A – the Infrastructure schemes report

The two Conservative local council leaders delegated the board seats to other executive councillors, at a time when Cambridgeshire County Council was a minority-Conservative-run council due to the presence of 12 (twelve) UKIP councillors whose main priority seemed to be about keeping council taxes low. Something that would have an impact later on down the line long after they left the local political scene. With no separate institutional separation between the GCP and the County Council, it was two of Cambridgeshire County Council’s senior officers, Stephen Hughes and Bob Menzies – the latter being the ‘founding father’ of guided busways who became the the main policy-drivers for the whole project. This at the same time as managing their full time jobs in the county council in the face of eye-watering austerity and budget cuts from central government.

“Where did all the transport scheme proposals come from?”

“There were lots on the list and at various stages of planning. Yet all too often I find myself wondering where the ideas for transport schemes – especially the more expensive ones – come from. Given how transport infrastructure affects our daily lives, shouldn’t people have more of a chance to find out about how the system works & how to influence it? (Or at least be encouraged to?)”

Greater Cambridge Assembly meets for the first time – 15 Jan 2015

Above – what I wrote nearly eight years ago. Not long after – and just before the 2015 General Election, the Cambridge Green Party proposed their alternative set of policies. Their most recent set of policies – and their response to the GCP consultation can be read here.

Smarter Cambridge Transport was scathing of the GCP when it went into retirement in 2021.

“There is remarkably little to show for the more than £200million that the government has so far given the GCP and Combined Authority to spend on transport. Nearly all of it has been paid to consultants for reports rather than delivering new transport options.”

Smarter Cambridge Transport 08 Dec 2021

Above – this was six months after the Conservatives lost political control of the Mayoralty and the County Council. Hence the more prominent positioning of Conservative politicians in recent protests against GCP schemes (in one sense it’s their job to oppose the decision-makers locally) even though they were the ones locally and nationally who made the key decisions 1) to form the GCP in the first place (as well as the mayoralty and combined authority), and 2) approved all of the decisions between 2014-18 when they had the political majority on the GCP Board and Assembly. As I mentioned at the top, when Labour and Liberal Democrats took control of the local councils, it was their representatives that took over that responsibility.

So none of the three political parties comes out unscathed.

“What happens now?”

Labour hold two of the three voting seats (one on behalf of the joint administration) on the GCP Board. With Dr Nik Johnson on medical leave, Cllr Anna Smith has also taken over as Acting Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. She has stated:

“We will listen carefully to the consultation and we won’t make a decision until the results have been analysed and published. I encourage you to have a look at the extensive consultation materials and have your say.”

Cllr Anna Smith – Cambridge Labour Party Website, 22 Nov 2022
“We’ve been here before, haven’t we?”

We have – and the former leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Shona Johnstone (formerly Cons – Willingham) gave evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee in 2009.

“In Cambridge we had a public consultation in 2007. The results were published in 2008 and showed quite a mixed picture, that 60% of the population in Cambridgeshire opposed congestion charging but 60% supported congestion charging if public transport measures were in place ahead of it, so it is a mixed picture. I would say that the public—and I suspect this applies nationally—support investment in public transport but oppose paying additional taxes.

So the Cambridgeshire Cabinet decided last summer to set up a transport commission, which is chaired by Sir Brian Briscoe, to look in more detail and take evidence from those in favour and those opposed to the TIF scheme in Cambridgeshire. That is just starting to take evidence now. There is a consultation which closes in March and a number of questions which are being posed by the Commission and they will carry out their work during the remainder of 2009 and I would anticipate that they would report back to the Cambridgeshire County Council Cabinet in 2010.”

Cllr Shona Johnstone (Cons – Willingham) – Cambridgeshire County Council to House of Commons Transport Select Committee, 28 Jan 2009, Q325

At the moment I cannot find a copy of Sir Brian’s report. That said, the news reports and the evidence from former Cllr Johnstone shows that the Cambridgeshire Public need to see that much-improved public and active transport infrastructure in place first before a critical mass will contemplate road user/congestion charging.

As things stand, is The Greater Cambridge Partnership a legitimate institution to be involved in the delivery of either in the eyes of residents? The problem again as Smarter Cambridge Transport mentioned, is that the trust with the institution (GCP) has gone. Can they rebuild it? If not, what is the alternative? As I wrote here, local political parties need to make contingencies about local government restructuring, and make the case to their party political leaders for national policy changes to include in their general election manifestos. Otherwise all that will have happened is a lot of money will have been spent on transport consultants for studies that led to nothing. With so much money spent on such studies that come to nothing, this indicates a broken transport planning system as well as a broken system of local government – something that even Parliament has concluded.

Food for thought?

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