MPs clash in BBC Politics East debate

Action is needed to solve Cambridge’s transport problems, but plans for a city congestion charge are meeting opposition, according to a BBC Politics East debate.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) – a body made up of three city councils, businesses and the University of Cambridge – has proposed what it calls a sustainable travel zone, covering most of the city.

Vehicles entering the zone between 07:00 and 19:00 on weekdays will be required to pay a minimum daily charge of £5.

The money raised will be used to pay for a £50 million expansion of the bus network, with the aim of creating a “London-esque” service and improving infrastructure for walking and cycling.

Map showing Cambridge's proposed congestion charging zone

Map showing Cambridge’s proposed congestion charging zone

The BBC Politics East debate, held at The Perse School in Cambridge, was attended by representatives from the Conservative Party, Green Party, Labor and Lib Dems. An invited audience was also present.

Peter Blake, GCP’s director of transportation, said: “We live in a very successful environment. It’s a great place to live, work and be educated.”

What the plans would lead to according to GCP

  • 20,000 additional bus journeys

  • Car journeys in Cambridge have fallen by 50%

  • Carbon emissions from transport reduced by approximately 5%

  • 10,000 additional park and ride spaces in the city

But that has led to “challenges” around congestion and its impact on the environment.

“These are the possible solutions,” he said.

He said the main element of the proposals was to “significantly” improve the bus network, making it “a lot cheaper” and more reliable.

Roxanne De Beaux, Camcycle’s executive director, supported the plans.

She said: “We need the Sustainable Travel Zone to reduce the number of cars on our roads and to provide the space and funding we need to improve our public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure.

“We need fairer choices for everyone, whatever mode of transport they choose. If not now, then when? It’s time to create a sustainable travel zone for Cambridge.”

Mother Lucy Kingsford, 22, from Hauxton, near Cambridge, opposed the plans, saying the charge would leave her and her son “socially isolated”.

“I live just outside Cambridge with my son Leo and I have to drive into town daily to get to work, to see my friends and family, to take my son to nursery,” she said.

“I couldn’t afford to pay for the congestion every day and this would really make me and Leo socially isolated.”

Asked by an audience member if he supported the plan, Daniel Zeichner, Labor MP for Cambridge, said: “I want a transformed transport system for this city.

“People are stuck in traffic jams in Cambridge for 65 hours a year. What a waste of time and damage to the environment, damage to people trying to get to work and small businesses.

“We have a chance to have a transportation system that’s right for this city. We all know that this city has been struggling with transportation for so long.

“We need a new bus system that is cheap, reliable and people can believe in. I think it’s worth trying.”

Lucy Frazer, the Conservative MP for South East Cambridgeshire, said: “I am totally against the charge because of the impact it will have on my constituents, who have absolutely no other way of entering Cambridge than by using their car.

“They will be charged if there is no alternative. I have spoken to companies who are really concerned about the impact on their customers and on their staff.

“I’ve spoken to people who work in the health sector at Addenbrooke’s [Hospital] who are concerned about the staff who work there and the people who use the services, who are charged.”

A roadworks sign on one of the main roads into and out of Cambridge

Drivers must be charged a minimum of £5 if driving in or around Cambridge between 07:00 and 19:00 on weekdays

Bridget Smith, the Lib Dem leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, said she needed more information from the consultation before deciding whether the proposals were the “right answer”.

But she added: “I drove here today because I have no choice. I live in Gamlingay. There is no bus service here, but I am privileged because I have a car. For a lot of people, they don’t have that choice.

“We also have 20% higher CO2 emissions in Greater Cambridge than the rest of the country. The only way we can deal with that is by taking cars off the road. And congestion is bad for health and well-being from people.”

Naomi Bennett, leader of the Green group on Cambridge City Council, said the debate was not just about “yes and no”.

“The Greens want better public transport and fairer choices. The problem we have with this consultation is that it is a work in progress and not a final product,” she said.

“So yes, we would like to see better public transport, but my party has also submitted 11 pages for improvements to the current consultation that we would like to see.

“This debate cannot be about yes and no. What we need to do is listen to each other and find a consensus that works for all of us.”

Addenbrooke’s Hospital would be within the congestion charge zone.

Dr. Michael More, chairman of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, said: “We welcome the debate. I think everyone knows that transport is coming to a standstill in Cambridge. We have a problem. ‘Can we improve public transport sustainably?’ would be a fundamental question for our employees.

“We employ 13,000 people. Some of our staff are very much against it. Some of our staff see the benefits. So I welcome a debate so we can make sure that public transport can be improved and the cycling measures can be improved.”

prof. Andrew Neely, Senior Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said the university wanted an improved transport system and was in talks with the GCP about its plans to double its investment in buses.

He said he wanted to limit the charge to £1 for intra-city travel, as well as improved cycle routes.

Candy Richards, from the Cambridgeshire Federation of Small Businesses, said she was concerned small businesses would bear “the cost” of the congestion charge.

She said a survey showed that 66% of small traders needed access to a vehicle.

Shapour Meftah, from the Mill Road Traders’ Association, said companies “would suffer” or “have to pass the fee on to their customers”.


By Ben Schofield, BBC East political correspondent

Let’s start with the points of agreement.

Pollution and congestion: bad. Better buses in the city and province: good. That much seemed clear from all sides.

A consensus also emerged that the current proposals needed to be amended before they could be introduced.

The disagreements centered on how much to change — or whether charging drivers should be cut altogether.

But alternative ideas for raising money for buses — or the precise stipulations of what needs to change and how — have been frustratingly harder to uncover.

Yes, there are 24,000 consultation responses being processed by the GCP, which may propose revisions in the summer.

And the problem with adjusting the plan is that any adjustment carries the risk of not delivering the promised benefits.

Oonagh Monkhouse, from Papworth Hospital, in the audience, said the way the debate is conducted on this is important. The staff, she said, are wondering about their future.

They’re not the only ones.

You can see more about this story on Politics East on BBC One on Sunday 5 February at 10:00 GMT, and it is also available on BBC iPlayer then.

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