Congestion charge proposals still on the table

This article was published in 2008, in Newsletter 80.

There have been a series of twists and turns on the issue of a congestion charge for Cambridge and the proposed £500m up-front investment that would come with it. Collectively, these proposals are known as the TIF bid, standing for Transport Innovation Fund, a specific pot of government money set up to entice local councils to try out local congestion-charging schemes.

Public consultation results: support if conditions in place

At the start of May, the results of the public consultation on the extensive TIF proposals were published. We reported on this in Newsletter 78, but in summary the results showed that a majority of the public would accept congestion charging if all revenues were spent on transport, if it was a morning-only charge, and if ‘attractive alternatives’ were in place in advance. In fact, all three of these were already proposed by the County.

Figure 30: Extent to which respondents support or oppose congestion charging in Cambridge
Image as described adjacent

Aftermath

Despite this actual level of support, the Cambridge Evening News and the business lobby have tried to spin this as a public rejection of the scheme, with the Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce threatening to start a campaign ‘People Against Congestion Charge Alliance’, or PACCA for short.

At the same time, recognising that there was considerable misunderstanding of the £500m of benefits (which the media have almost completely failed to cover), we launched a website www.UnclogCambridge.com and gained some media coverage from this. This remains online and tries to explain these benefits – in clearer terms than the County Council seem to have managed so far. Whilst we recognise there are still dangers within the proposals for cycling, in general the view established through three monthly meetings and by the Committee has been to welcome the proposals but with caveats, with these being matters that could be addressed in the later stages of consultation.

At the end of June, the new Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Conservative Councillor Jill Tuck, taking her first major public decision, pulled the plug on the TIF bid as it stood, and gave into the business lobby and hostile media.

Transport Commission

She announced that a new Transport Commission would be set up, containing a hand-picked selection of stakeholders, but excluding ourselves, despite our continued presence in media coverage on this issue. This announcement was not subject to any public consultation or any public meeting of Councillors. She stated:

“We have listened carefully over the last few months and it is clear that the Transport Innovation Fund scheme we put forward for consultation last autumn does not have sufficient support either from other key organisations or the public and needs, at the very least, refinement.”

“The Government’s Transport Innovation Fund (TIF), does give us a unique opportunity to attract substantial Government funding for transport improvements and we will continue to work with them in the hope of securing that. The £500 million we have requested is way in excess of anything we could ever raise locally but such a huge cash injection does have to be accompanied by a congestion-charging scheme. It will be for the Commission to recommend what is best for Cambridge but any scheme must have support from key public and private organisations and also the public.”

Letters were sent out to the bodies concerned, which included Addenbrooke’s, business lobby members, and others.

The City Council and others (ourselves included) complained vigorously about the make up of this Transport Commission and its undemocratic nature. City Council members wanted any such body to be Councillor-led instead.

Councillor Nimmo-Smith, Lib Dem Leader of the City Council and the Executive Councillor for Climate Change and Growth, then sent a strong letter objecting to the proposed commission and spelling out possible implications for future co-operation between the City and County Councils. Key paragraphs were:

“The growth agenda for the city is intensely ambitious and public confidence in the ability of the County Council to provide integrated transport solutions for the growth agenda is low. Removing influence from the County Council as their elected representatives to a group of organisations, each of whom has a primary duty to their own trustees or shareholders, will further undermine public confidence. […] We are at a loss to see how the Commission fits with the recently agreed S29 joint plan-making committee and the associated Joint Transport Forum.”

“I need hardly spell out the possible implications of the City Council abandoning its commitment to the S29 committee; Horizons have already received growth funding amounting to £1.4m a year which was contingent upon the three authorities signing up to the S29 concept, as was the ‘rolling fund’ authorisation which enabled up-front capital of several million for growth infrastructure.”

U-turn

On 9th September, the County Council’s Cabinet made a clear U-turn and radically changed the nature of the proposed Transport Commission. Conservative County Councillor Mac Maguire said that they had been ‘a bit hasty’ in choosing a list of members and sending out letters.

So, instead, this Commission will now be a ‘process’ without any members. It will have a totally independent Panel consisting of three ’eminent people’ without connections to existing stakeholders in the area. Recruitment of these people would begin immediately.

Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Councillor Jill Tuck stated:

“The Commission will need to gain a thorough understanding of the key transport issues we face and consider whether the proposals put forward last year are appropriate. We are not tying their hands to a congestion-charging scheme but they will need to recognise that without this, there is no chance of massive Government investment in public transport improvements.”

The remit of the Panel is basically to examine the options for a demand-management scheme and judge how sound the County’s proposals were, as well as to review the public consultation results. The panel will invite contributions from anyone and everyone who wants to make submissions. They would then re-invite those from whom they have heard to provide more detail. It will then produce a report in time for Cabinet to make some kind of decision in autumn 2009, which gives enough time for a formal bid in the government’s TIF timescale … and, of course, any potential change of government.

In a debate at the Joint Transport Forum on the previous day, Sebastian Kindersley (Lib Dem, Leader of South Cambs Council) said, in reference to the previous list of invitees, that “Cambridge Cycling Campaign is an amazing omission”. He and others were much happier with the new proposals, which seem to have secured cross-party political support.

The Panel

In our view the Panel process sets things back in a somewhat unfortunate manner, and may mean that key transport issues are investigated by people who are not experts in that field. Nonetheless, it does provide a way forward in a clearly difficult political situation.

Councillors were asked at the same Forum meeting whether there were specific things they thought the Panel should seek to investigate.

Councillor Sian Reid felt that Saturdays (which had been excluded from the congestion charge proposals) needed to be looked at. She also wanted greater clarity on whether the various options set out in a paper detailing alternatives to a congestion charge against a background of high housing growth could actually deliver this growth. Officers were quite clear that the ‘do nothing’ situation (or “leave it to the market”, apparently favoured by 5% of respondents to the public consultation) would not.

There was a general view that some of the assessment needs to be updated in the light of one-third higher petrol prices.

Councillors wanted a more holistic assessment of the transport problems of “Southern Cambridgeshire” rather than just Cambridge itself, and felt that this was a deficiency with the TIF bid as it stood.

Councillor Tim Ward and others were clear in their view that the other main alternative to a congestion charge, a Workplace Parking Levy, was not a good option, partly because it would reduce S106 contributions and therefore reduce the increased overall revenue to the Local Authority for transport improvements.

Councillor Lewis Herbert repeated his somewhat misleading quote that a congestion charge would result in ‘Cameras on roughly every street in Cambridge’. However, he stated that a ‘two-cordon option is arguably worth assessing’ whilst reiterating his general view against congestion charging.

Paul Cook, a senior officer at the County Council, clarified that some 50% of traffic in Cambridge originated in Cambridge, partly in order to counter the continued claims by some that the problem is predominantly due to rural people driving into Cambridge.

Where now?

We will contribute to the Transport Commission a range of well-argued points in favour of the general principle of a congestion charge if it is coupled with up-front expenditure on transport, with a significant proportion of this to be spent on cycling as a key way to reduce congestion through modal shift.

So it is clear that the proposals have not been shelved and that Councillors are still very much aware that some kind of radical demand management scheme is the only way that Cambridge has a hope of easing its traffic problems and of obtaining a very large sum of money for investment in improved transport arrangements.

We feel it would be a short-sighted set of Councillors who turn down such an opportunity, and we hope that the new Transport Commission process, and input from ourselves and others, will give them the backup they need in the face of a business lobby seemingly determined to turn down such investment, despite the waste of resources (not to mention other problems) that people sitting waiting in traffic currently represents.

Martin Lucas-Smith