Why the call for a referendum on congestion charging for Cambridge is flawed – but is not the fault of those signing it.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership senior officers and board members past and present of all three political parties, and the ministers that created the institution, only have themselves to blame.

You can read the following:

  1. the meeting papers for Cambridgeshire County Council’s full council
  2. The news item in the Cambridge Independent with the link to the petition

Residents in and around Cambridge (i.e. South Cambridgeshire district, and southern Cambridgeshire generally) have been protesting about a whole host of GCP proposals for years. Most of us who were there from the start in the mid-2010s are now thoroughly sick of the whole thing, worn down by pointless repeated consultations that have had little impact on what senior transport officers recommended to board members who, for whatever reason seemed to rubber stamp what was put in front of them.

“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

“It’s almost as if local governance has been designed to frustrate innovation and change. Overlapping planning powers are dispersed between eight local authorities plus GCP (technically, a joint committee).”

Smarter Cambridge Transport is retiring – 08 Dec 2021
“Who is protesting and petitioning against what?”
  1. A grass roots petition signed by over 15,000 people, which now has the support of Cambridgeshire Conservatives – in a reversal of their policy in 2007 when they ran the County Council.
  2. The ongoing grassroots campaign (that has been going on since the mid-2010s and supported by Cambridge Past, Present & Future – previously the Cambridge Preservation Society) against the proposed Cambourne-Cambridge busway through the Coton green corridor, which has over 3,000 signatures.

“Why is a referendum on congestion charging wrong?”

It isn’t wrong – it’s a perfectly understandable call in the face of a publicly-funded organisation that has refused to listen or co-operate meaningfully over the years with residents and campaign groups – including people with significant levels of expertise in the fields (This is Cambridge after all) to come up with improved solutions – in particular refusing to carry out some of the most basic of feasibility studies whilst having a partner institution wasting £10million on a now abandoned scheme based on untested technology.

The main reason the referendum as proposed is flawed is because Cambridgeshire County Council only has the powers to poll voters within its own county boundaries. The motion calls on the county council to bring forward a poll of voters using powers under Section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003 (see here). The problem with this as many of you know is that Cambridge’s sub-regional economy extends far beyond our county boundaries. Yet residents on Royston (Hertfordshire), Saffron Walden (Essex), Haverhill & Newmarket (Suffolk) are all excluded because they are located in different county council areas.

“Wouldn’t it be simple to include those towns? Simply by designating them by the boundaries of their respective town councils?”

You’d inevitably get people living in the villages around them complaining (understandably) that they are excluded. So the question then becomes ‘where do you stop’ geographically?

“What about voting not just by residence but by workplace?”

Then you get into the problem of a bias towards commuters which automatically excludes people who need to get to Cambridge regularly for reasons other than commuting – of which there are lots. Furthermore, in this freelancing world we live in, there are people who do a lot of business in Cambridge but who don’t have a formal workplace to speak of. You only have to look at the growth of the hubs where you can rent a desk for the afternoon along with the various additional facilities that come either all included or at additional costs.

“How much is this referendum supposed to cost?”

The Leader of the Conservatives on Cambridgeshire County Council wants £1.5million set aside for the referendum.

***HOW MUCH?!?!?!?!***

£1.5million. See page 5 of the meeting papers.

That is not to say Cambridgeshire County Council would definitely spend £1.5million on a referendum, or that is how much it would cost. Rather it’s the authorisation to spend *up to* that amount on the referendum without needing to come back to the council for further approval to spend more money.

“***One-and-a-half million?!?*** In an era of austerity where parents cannot afford to feed their children? Where people are having to decide whether to heat or eat?!?”

Puts it in a very different perspective, doesn’t it?

“Why didn’t they choose something different? Like a workplace parking levy?”

This was one of the options put to the GCP back in 2019, but it *did not include* the congestion charging option as an alternative.

“It seems that, since then, large employers in Cambridge have lobbied against its introduction. Politicians are also convinced that the potential revenue is too small to go after, and that it won’t do enough to reduce congestion.”

Smarter Cambridge Transport to Cambridge Independent – 01 Nov 2019

Because of the haphazard nature of how the different schemes have been presented to the public, officers and councillor board members have felt compelled to be bound by the results of flawed consultations, or decisions taken in a very different economic, political, and social context.

One huge change in the political context is that in the run up to the 2018 local elections, there were 2 Conservative Party board members (for Cambridgeshire County Council & South Cambridgeshire District Council), both of whom were vanquished by the electorate over the course of the following three years – by which time we had experienced both a general election and also the start of a once-in-a-century global pandemic. Also, in that time period we have had *four Prime Ministers* (which resulted in a huge amount of national policy instability too).

Despite that huge political change, the senior officers of the Greater Cambridge Partnership carried on as if nothing had happened.

This was a point made by Smarter Cambridge Transport again.

“Is the Greater Cambridge Partnership railroading inexperienced councillors into agreeing to proceed with environmentally damaging and demonstrably unnecessary projects?”

Smarter Cambridge Transport – 10 Jun 2021

This was a month after the ‘super-elections’ that swept away the Conservatives from both the County Council and the mayoralty of the Combined Authority. It was an earthquake of a result as I wrote in May 2021.

“We didn’t have a referendum on the establishment of the GCP, and we didn’t have one on establishing a Combined Authority? Surely there would have been greater merit in having mandating referenda on those, than on a congestion charge?

The Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Anna Bailey (Cons – Downham Villages) stated that no one has an elected mandate for congestion charging.

Which is a fair point – but then:

  1. Few parties and fewer candidates publish election manifestos anyway
  2. Those that publish manifestos are very rarely read or taken notice of by the voting public at a local level. (How many people read the manifesto of Puffles the Dragon Fairy in 2014? While there was a theme about empowering young people, there wasn’t anything about installing a big dragon slide on Coleridge Rec (even though most of the children who play on it seem delighted with it.

Above-left: contesting the cycling vote with Labour’s Lewis Herbert at the 2014 CamCycle Hustings. Above-centre: Vote dragon. Above-right: Get – or got dragon!

Above – it was former Cllr Carina O’Reilly who signed off the order of the dragon slide at Coleridge Rec.

This shows that one thing we are not agreed on locally or nationally are what are the sorts of issues suitable to put out to local referenda.

There’s a stronger case for having referenda for the transfer of powers from one major institution to another. For example the Republic of Ireland has to have a referendum for every EU treaty it signs. One reason we don’t have that in the UK is because in our parliamentary democracy, “Parliament is Sovereign”. And it retains and refreshes that sovereignty every time there is a general election, at which point we the electorate are invited to indicate by secret ballot our preference for who should represent our constituency in the forthcoming parliament. *And that is it*. Our votes might be influenced by the following:

  • Opinion of individual candidates
  • The political party a candidate is representing/has been adopted by as their official candidate
  • The content of a manifesto of a national political party
  • The past record of the political party in government up to the time the general election is called
  • The promises made by individual candidates in public speeches or in writing
  • Tactical voting to keep out another political party
  • A desire to vote for the ‘joke’ candidate

…and more. We don’t have anything in our legal system or constitutional framework that says something must go out to a referendum *unless Parliament authorises it*.

“So…how do we get out of this mess?”

As Peter Studdert said to Lewis Herbert and Sam Davies on Cambridge 105:

***Abolish the County Council, abolish the GCP, abolish the Combined Authority, and create a new Unitary Council for Cambridge.***

Which is similar to what Phil Rodgers called for in this week’s Cambridge Independent.

…and also my call for a unitary council for Cambridge and surrounding towns & villages.

The call for a referendum is a reflection of how much trust has been lost, and how little trust there is in the Greater Cambridge Partnership from residents.

“Where did the busways thing come from again?”

It came from a document published 20 years ago called Cambridge Futures. I bought an old library copy ages ago which you can browse through here. It was this that ultimately resulted in the first Cambridge Guided Busway – which had so many problems in planning, construction and delivery that the dispute between Cambridgeshire County Council & BAM Nuttall the main contractor is now in the High Court. This was after a long and bitter campaign between Cambridgeshire County Council (run by the Conservatives at the time) and a group of campaigners who wanted the restoration of the old Cambridge-St Ives Railway Line. Hence CAST.IRON.

Busways were incorporated into the future transport strategy for Cambridge in the old regional East of England Plan.

Above-left, Cambridge Futures 2 (2003), and above-right, East of England Plan (2010)

In the old East of England Plan on p120 of the PDF document, there is a bit about local rail and high quality bus networks – and high quality transport interchanges.

…but none of them deal with either light rail (of which we now have proposals from Connect Cambridge), nor did the plan address the privatised bus services.

“Wasn’t that entire tier of regional government abolished by Eric Pickles in 2010?”

Yes – you can read the announcement here.

“So how come busways remained as a thing?”

Presumably the County Council kept hold of the work they had done – the first guided busway did not open until August 2011, and simply applied the model to the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

Cambridgeshire County Council’s Transport Strategy April 2014

Just before the Greater Cambridge City Deal was signed in June 2014 (See the quotations of ministers and councillors here), Cambridgeshire County Council published their transport strategy for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire. Which you can read here.

In that strategy, they talk new busways. On p34 of the PDF you can see the table at 4.1 which already mentions options for new guided busways (despite the legal problems that were ongoing with the existing one).

They even provided a nice map!

Above – fig. 4.2 on p35 of the PDF

Note they never had any idea of what would happen to the buses from Cambourne when they hit Grange Road. They still don’t today. I have been asking the GCP and others about this for at least five years. It is behaviour like this that results in the loss of trust. Saying that ‘they will join the existing bus network’ when that bus network is run predominantly by Stagecoach with its appalling record simply isn’t good enough a response.

When I asked about contingency planning in the event of the GCP not getting a political mandate, my question was ignored by senior transport officers as this transcript shows.

Above – a very basic question that should be pressed further by councillors on the Greater Cambridge Assembly who are supposed to be scrutinising the GCP.

A quick update on East West Rail

Although not mentioned in the Chancellor’s speech, East West Rail between Bedford and Cambridge is going ahead, and an announcement in May (presumably after the local elections) will confirm whether it will be a northern or southern approach.

Watch the changes in land ownership around the sites of future railway stations as developers and speculators cash in!

Not that I’m cynical! (Just semi-house bound. CFS has flared up this week so I’ve spent the past 3 days not venturing far beyond the cafe and the grocers’. I get grumpy when I can’t be out and about).

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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