Congestion Charging Commission hearings: who said what

Congestion charging, and a possible up-front government grant of £500m from the Transport Infrastructure Fund (TIF), remain together probably the most important transport debate in Cambridge at present. Such a charge and investment would have a huge effect on cycling and all other forms of transport. Last year the County Council’s Cabinet put on hold a decision about congestion charging, and set up the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission to scrutinise both the proposals and also the views of people for or against them.

The Transport Commissioners are doing a good job of analysing people’s views in an unbiased fashion.

The two Commissioners have been holding a series of public meetings at which they have been grilling experts on particular issues. No-one who attended the first meeting could accuse the panel of being soft on the County Council officers present. The Commissioners have acted with an open mind and have often played ‘devil’s advocate’ in examining the views submitted by people, to explore possible weaknesses in their arguments.

Having attended most of the sessions myself, it has been interesting for me to hear what has been said. Here is a summary of the sessions and some key statements. The Commission’s website at www.cambstransportcommission.co.uk contains a complete write-up. It also contains a summary of the thousand or more pieces of feedback and evidence submitted by the public, which contain a wide variety of views.

4 March: The impact of growth

The main aim of this session was to explore transport issues in Cambridgeshire in the context of plans for economic and housing growth at a national, regional and local levels. Evidence was taken from regional organisations and the County Council.

The main message given was that, despite the current economic climate, housing growth on a substantial scale was still expected in the medium term for the area. This would have considerable impacts on infrastructure in the Cambridge area. It was claimed that planned growth to 2021 requires £2bn of investment in transport. If Cambridgeshire’s TIF bid for £500m is successful, there will still be a £760m funding gap for transport needs, with an even bigger gap without TIF.

Officers from the County Council said that minor interventions would in future not be sufficient to keep a limit on the number of cars and buses entering the city, or to prevent an unacceptable worsening in congestion. The implication was that the bollard schemes to prevent through traffic had reached the limits of their effectiveness and that more radical measures, covering a wider area, were necessary to avoid unacceptable levels of congestion resulting from massive housing growth. There was debate over what ‘unacceptable’ actually meant; officers replied that this was really a matter for politicians to decide.

10 March: The impact on business

This session took evidence and views from business organisations, and was particularly interesting. (A full write-up of this meeting is available in a blog posting at http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/880, and is well worth a read.)

John Bridge of the Chambers of Commerce was against a congestion charge but proposed that a 2% increase in business rates might be an acceptable alternative. However, this would amount to a fraction of the transport investment from TIF.

John Bridge, Chief Executive of the Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, felt that TIF was blackmail and he was against local road pricing. A key problem was the disparity between income resulting from economic activity in the Cambridge area and the amount of money received back from the government. He claimed that rejection of TIF would still result in transport funding coming from other sources. But when pressed on this, his only specific answer was that a 2% increase in business rates might be acceptable, if ring-fenced for transport. (However, this would apparently be about 1-5% of the funds that TIF would raise, so does not appear to be a serious suggestion.)

Dick Jarvis, the Cambridge Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) representative, felt that a congestion charge would adversely affect his members and said that the FSB wanted a referendum in advance of one being introduced. He suggested that there was considerable lack of understanding about what the proposals actually were: for instance, the fact that the charge is proposed only for 2 hours each weekday morning. In terms of existing costs due to congestion, the FSB had calculated that around 6.2 hours a week are lost in Cambridgeshire because of congestion. Sir Brian Briscoe, one of the Commissioners, then pressed him on whether ‘white-van man’ would ultimately gain from a charge, i.e. whether a charge of £4-5 would be off-set by 20 minutes’ more chargeable work. (This is a view that the Cycling Campaign has also put forward, and we are glad to see the Commissioners examining it.) Mr Jarvis said ‘it could do, yes’, though he felt that in practice the profit/loss aspect would not be recognised as such when a driver makes the payment on the day. It is clear that more research is needed on this question to get more definitive answers.

Jonathan Barker, Group Company Secretary for Marshall of Cambridge. explained the good work his company was doing to promote cycling. He felt that a charge would create significant dangers for the business. He was keen to see investigation of ‘transport pods’ though he was not suggesting explicit support until the financial aspects and other matters had been fully investigated. He was against John Bridge’s idea of the business rate supplement.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership also spoke but did not express a formal view for or against owing to differing opinions amongst its constituent membership.

The Commissioners ended by asking whether they felt that all groups of people around Cambridge had a responsibility for reducing traffic. The answer was ‘yes’, but that business would find it hard to make changes. The Commissioners suggested that everyone else would say the same, implying that something more radical than current policies might be required.

18 March: The County Council’s proposals

This session saw a presentation by the County Council of the TIF proposals as previously put forward. As with all the other presentations, this is available on the Commission’s website.

The County Council proposals for bus transport in the scheme seem to be less clear than they should be. Their apparent view that cycling cannot be increased very significantly needs to be challenged.

The County noted that some 60% of the up-front TIF funds would go towards public transport, to put a frequent bus service within 400 m of all homes in Cambridge and within 1 km of 75% of homes in South Cambridgeshire. The Commissioners suggested that even these figures might not make public transport significantly more attractive, as 400 m still represented quite a long walk for those with luggage, for example.

The Commissioners spent much time pressing officers as to what exactly the money would be spent on. Officers did not seem entirely clear, though the purchase of a fleet of hybrid buses (modern, low-emission buses) that operators could lease, seemed to account for a large share of the money. This was presented as one way of gaining more leverage over routes operated by bus companies, and the fares charged, than under the current legal framework, which effectively gives the County Council zero control over service standards.

When it came to cycling, some £55m is the allocation, around 10% of the total amount. The County Council officers seemed rather dismissive about the suggestion that the modal share for cycling could be significantly increased, a very disappointing attitude. This clearly indicates to us that there is more ‘hearts and minds’ promotion needed to change mindsets within the County Council, though the TIF proposals for cycling do seem to focus on a quality approach.

Officers worked through a range of scenarios, with only the imposition of a congestion charge giving any serious traffic reduction benefits. The feeling of a small minority of Cambridgeshire people that traffic would be self-regulating with little or no intervention in transport investment schemes, was fairly easily dismissed.

Officers acknowledged that significant changes would be needed in Council structures in order to make the massive TIF investment manageable.

19 March: City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge Preservation Society

The City Council’s agenda of reducing CO2 emissions through congestion charging while allowing residents’ discounts was exposed as inconsistent. South Cambs agenda was basically ‘traffic jams today, more jams tomorrow’.

The City Council’s representatives were Councillors Ian Nimmo-Smith and Sian Reid. They put forward a view broadly in favour of TIF – owing to the need to cope with massive housing growth – but on condition that residents receive large discounts. They were disappointed at the way the County had not involved the City Council in drawing up the TIF plans. They wished to see some kind of integrated transport authority set up if the TIF plans went ahead, to ensure that the changes won general public acceptance.

One of their key proposals was for the TIF bid to have a much greater emphasis on CO2 reduction. The Commissioners spent considerable time questioning the Councillors on the apparent mismatch between this proposal and their support for large (perhaps some 90%) residents’ discounts. The Councillors did not give clear answers on this matter, though eventually accepted that there was a conflict. Their only concrete suggestion was for modelling the trade-offs, so that a public debate could be held as to what the balance should be.

South Cambridgeshire DC was represented by Cllr Ray Manning (Leader) and Cllr Dr David Bard. They were against a charge, following a motion passed a few weeks earlier. They felt that, whilst improvements to public transport were certainly welcome, the dispersed rural nature of South Cambs meant that this was unlikely to result in much modal shift in practice. Thus residents would merely end up paying a charge with little benefit to themselves directly.

The Commissioners repeatly asked them whether the increased congestion and delays implicit in the ‘do nothing’ scenario that South Cambs was effectively pushing for, would be welcomed by its residents. The Councillors seemed to have no answer to this.

The Cambridge Preservation Society broadly supported congestion charging on the basis that there was really no other solution. However, they queried the modelling and the very exact nature of some of the figures presented by the County Council which, from an academic perspective, seemed fictional; percentage ranges (based on likelihood/risk levels) were put forward as more appropriate and rigorous.

24 March: transport groups – including ourselves

This hearing gave the Commissioners the chance to hear from a range of different groups representing different modes of transport. Evidence was given by Stagecoach Buses, the RAC Foundation, Cambridge Cycling Campaign, the British Motorcycling Federation, the camToo Project and the Taxi Drivers’ associations.

Andy Campbell of Stagecoach presented his company’s problems in trying to run a punctual service as levels of congestion increased. More traffic meant that more and more buses were needed, with a consequent increase in costs. He did not state strong agreement with the idea of congestion charging, but this seemed to be implied by his statements that a 46% increase in journey times would require an extra 68 vehicles on the road if bus frequencies were not to suffer, and that buses (with the exception of the guided bus) would become too slow and unreliable to be an attractive transport option.

A key question was where buses should stop in the city centre. His preferred solution was to build on the bowling green section of Christ’s Pieces, while returning the current bus station to green space, effectively a land-swap which in his view would make possible a more modern and useful layout for efficient bus operation. He recognised that this was unlikely to be politically acceptable. Interestingly, the media report shortly after this meeting failed to mention the proposal to return the current bus station to green space.

The RAC Foundation was next, and agreed with TIF as a means of moving towards a national road-pricing system that would eventually replace tax on petrol.

This session was the Campaign’s opportunity to present its case. Our presentation is online at www.cambstransportcommission.co.uk/?nid=5 (third link on the page).

We presented the position reached over several monthly meetings, of being broadly in favour but with some reservations. We put ourselves forward as the highest-profile local supporter of the proposals, having set up our UnclogCambridge.com website partly to counter the myths surrounding the proposals, and partly to address the poor information provided by the County Council itself.

We presented the view that there was ample scope to increase cycling levels, and that continental countries showed that, with the right mindset and sufficient funds, 30-40% cycling rates could be achieved. TIF was the only option on the table that would get anything like the amount of money needed.

We made clear that both sticks and carrots are needed, in that simply throwing money at the problem of congestion would not work unless road space was freed up for public transport and cycling. We felt that only congestion charging could solve both problems at once.

The other speakers mainly did not address the congestion charge proposals per se. The British Motorcyclists Federation speaker wanted to see Powered Two Wheelers allowed to use bus lanes and the provision of more parking spaces. The camToo project speaker put forward his proposals for a new river channel which would enhance rowing, and said that the opportunity to do this at the same time as introducing the transport changes in TIF was being missed. The taxi drivers’ representatives felt that the councils should create more taxi bays in the city centre and that the councils seemed constantly anti-taxi.

16 April: business and transport

The representative of CRACA, the Cambridge Retail and Commercial Association, said his members’ views were mixed, though retailers were certainly nervous about the proposals. He felt that it would be vital to ensure that any charging scheme did not affect shopping hours, and that it must be clear and well promoted, with the benefits fully publicised. He felt that many of his members did not fully understand what was actually proposed, but that the growth agenda meant that something radical was needed.

It is clear that there is a range of views, both positive and negative, regarding congestion charging. The agenda pushed in local newspapers that the public is against a charge is too simplistic.

Microsoft Research, an organisation with a very commendable 45% employee cycling rate, based on the University’s West Cambridge site, felt that proposals for congestion charging would result in a damaging view of the city. (The Commissioners then played devil’s advocate, suggesting that the congestion charging might in fact be seen as ‘modern’ by international observers.)

Cambridge Consultants similarly felt that the message given to investors would be a negative one, when considering where to site international capital investment. They felt that the additional cost to them of £600k/year would be an intolerable burden.

The Cambridge Food Company was next, and also against a charge. They felt that the argument that time savings would offset financial costs was not applicable in their case, and that smaller businesses would struggle, compared to larger catering businesses which would just absorb the costs nationally.

Network Rail then mentioned their plans for the area, without reference to a charge.

Finally, the Association of British Drivers put forward a predictable call for eradication of congestion charging proposals, removal of barriers preventing through traffic in local streets, and a view that congestion was caused by traffic-calming schemes and traffic-light phasing rather than the presence of too many vehicles.

Other public meetings

Meetings were also held on 26 March (Health and Emergency Services), 6 April (Huntingdonshire), 21 April (Education Transport) and 27 April (East Cambridgeshire). No Campaign representatives attended these. Notes from the meetings are on the Transport Commission’s website.

Martin Lucas-Smith