Azara Blog: Cambridgeshire County Council wants to introduce a "congestion" charge

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Date published: 2007/12/03

Cambridgeshire County Council would love to introduce a "congestion" charge in Cambridge. Well, first of all, as in London, it is not a congestion charge, it is an access charge. The fact that proponents of these taxes cannot even be honest about the name already tells you they are up to no good.

The county is having a public consultation about the charge. Like all public consultations, it is a waste of time, because it proves nothing. The only people who respond to these consultations are the middle class, which in Cambridge largely means the academic middle class (so even worse). Now almost all transport plans in Cambridge involve screwing motorists, but normally the proposals are so localised that not many people get that excited against them. On the other hand, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign is an organised cycling group which always pushes an anti-car agenda (rather than a pro-cycling one), and they always make sure they and their members are heard way above and beyond what their small numbers should justify. So normally these consultations are way biased against cars, which is what the transport planners want, so of course they are normally happy to claim these consultations are wonderful representations of public opinion, which they are not.

This time, however, they have pissed a lot of motorists off, and so they seem to be expecting, for once, that the anti-proposal opinion will dominate the consultation, even more than the cyclists (who for some reason feel they have some contribution to make on the congestion issue, even though it has nothing to do with them, or, rather, should have nothing to do with them). Of course ultimately the council bureaucrats don't really care what people think, they will just do what they want to do unless the politicians get cold feet. So even if the consultation ends up being heavily against the proposal, it will be irrelevant. Other factors will determine what happens.

One of the major problems with transport planning in the city of Cambridge is that it is not handled by city government but by the county government. Of course the city ruling elite hate car drivers just as much as the county ones do. But the county council is run by the Tories, and the city council is run by the Lib Dems, with not a Tory councillor to be seen. So the county council in particular has no interest in what the people of Cambridge city think. And their proposals for this new charge (so tax) exactly reflects this problem. Indeed, the consultation exhibits hardly make an appearance at all in Cambridge. There is only one visit to the city centre, and that happened today, in Lion Yard. They had a pathetic little desk with hardly any space to explain what the proposals really are. At least they had some of the transport planners on hand, to justify their plans.

Cambridge is much smaller than London, so loses out on economy of scale. So they have made up for that by proposing that the entire city out to the A14 / M11 / eastern edge be covered, and that city residents should get no discount (they are not Tory voters so why should they). They even want to charge people who live at the edge of the city and drive out of the city. But they only will operate the scheme from 7.30 to 9.30 AM. This means that workers will be hammered but not shoppers, so many natural opponents (such as John Lewis and all the other zillions of shops in the city centre) can be bought off.

The proposal is happening now because it seems to be a pre-condition for Cambridge to be eligible for a whacking 500 million pounds from the government to spend on (mostly) public transport around Cambridge. They are even proposing to blow an amazing 50 million pounds on cycling, which is ridiculous. If you scale that up to Britain, that 500 million is almost the equivalent of 300 billion pounds being spent in a short period on (mostly) public transport. This is a completely unsustainable and silly amount (although of course like all groups, the transport lobby could of course spend twice as much money without blinking).

So why should the government be throwing this kind of money at a small town like Cambridge? Well, the government wants to introduce national "congestion" charging and so needs some pilot trials outside of London. And since the Cambridge ruligg elite hate cars, this is a natural town to try. But a more sensible location is Manchester, which is indeed applying for the same kind of funds. This money is only available if in turn a congestion charge is introduced.

Well, sometimes the Cambridge transport planners admit this is why this proposal is coming forward now, and sometimes they claim it is all because Cambridge is going to grow so much in a decade that congestion is going to get a lot worse in future "unless something is done". But that is way off in the future, and by then we will have a national road pricing scheme, so there is no real point in Cambridge veering off in this direction now, except that it is part of the quid pro quo for getting this large government bribe.

There is a bit of a game of bluff going on here. The county applies to the national government for money. But if the government doesn't thrown in enough of a bribe (and 500 million seems to be the crazy figure the county is demanding) then the bribe will be turned down and no congestion charge. Does Gordon Brown really want to throw 500 million pounds at Cambridge (with a Lib Dem MP surrounded by Tory MPs)? Given all the antagonism engendered by this proposal, and given this additional game of bluff, and given that some Tory councillors don't like this proposed massive (so easily 800 pound a year) tax increase on their own voters (even if they don't care about Cambridge city voters), it seems that the transport bureaucrats may well lose their precious scheme. But this has nothing to do with the public consultation.

One of the problems with Cambridge traffic is that the transport planners themselves have made it much worse the last decade. The biggest example of this is Newmarket Road, where they have introduced a completely wacky bus lane which has reduced capacity by almost half, even though a lot of drivers (bravely or foolishly) ignore large sections of it because it is so wacky. This is one of the reasons that Coldham's Lane has become completely impassable into town the last couple of years on the weekend. The other reason is that the city has allowed retail park after retail park to be put into that area. As a result, everybody who needs to buy anything useful (e.g. for DIY) has to go to that part of the city. The Cambridge ruling elite have evidently never heard of distributed shopping. In particular, the north-west side of Cambridge has to cross the river (which means Elizabeth Way) to get to this shopping. Far better would have been to have a shopping plaza with easy access to the A14 near Histon Road. But we couldn't possibly have that, no, that would have been far too logical and sensible.

The transport planner at the Lion Yard exhibition today even admitted that Newmarket Road was a disaster they had made. But Tesco on Newmarket Road (which is only one part of the retail hell in that area) he blamed on national government, since apparently local government turned it down, and then national government ruled in favour of Tesco. It seems that one of the new proposals is to put the bus lanes down the middle of Newmarket Road rather than on the outside. That still reduces the capacity by half, but it makes the bus lanes less wacky. But how will bus passengers get off to go shopping? It's all very bizarre.

The same chap said that the Cambridge scheme would be less inefficient than the London scheme in raising money. So if they keep their proposals concerning the time and zone and with no reductions for Cambridge residents, then he claimed that the scheme would cost 10 million pounds a year to run (so expect it to cost more) and the sheme would bring in 35 million pounds a year if the charge was 4 pounds (so mid-range of the 3-5 pound proposal). So that's "only" a 30% inefficiency, compared with a > 50% London inefficiency. It's still a pretty inefficient way to impose a tax. And it can possibly only make sense if with the reduction of cars the city somehow claws back more than 10 million pounds in savings. Of course the transport planners claim it will.

The other coming proposals are going to raise a lot of hackles from quite a few rich people, so the county really is asking for trouble. For example, they want to make Huntingdon Road one-way, tidally (so inwards in the morning and outwards in the afternoon). This might be prefectly good for workers zooming in from the A14, but it's going to screw all the people who live on Huntingdon Road who want to just nip into and out of Cambridge when they feel like it, not when the council feels like letting them do it.

And how do these people get back to their houses if they want to when the tide is still coming in? Well, in future they will have to drive *all* the way up Madingley Road to almost the Park and Ride, and then take a new (so yet to be built) road connecting Madingley Road with Huntingdon Road, and then back up Huntingdon Road into town. Hey, a great victory for the environment, you will need to travel twice as far as you used to. And this new road will border Lansdowne Road and Conduit Head Road (a conservation area with loads of modernist houses on it). That will not happen without a big fight.

Further, the so-called NIAB site between Huntingdon Road and Histon Road is being developed. And that will have a road connecting the top end of Histon Road with the far end of Huntingdon Road. But cars will not be able to use it, just buses. So these cars will still have to travel all the way up Histon Road. Another great victory for the environment. If the city does not block off the Windsor Road / Oxford Road rat run, then that will get even more traffic in future. But if they do block it off, then people will have to drive all the way down to Madingley Road and up and around just to get from Arbury to Girton. So a one-mile journey as the crow flies becomes a three-mile journey as the Cambridge transport planner flies. More nonsense.

There has been no new road built in Cambridge, that has not been a housing estate access road, since 1970 (Elizabeth Way). Finally this year, after a 27 year gap, they are putting in a new road, a road from Trumpington to the hospital. Unbelievably the Cambridge transport planners are proposing several new roads on top of this. One of these is a connecting road from Milton down to the proposed new Chesterton rail station. This one will not be very controversial but unfortunately it indeed seems to be coming from Milton, not the A14. So to get to it from the A14 you have to do a bit of a convoluted loop at the Milton interchange. And it doesn't help people who live in north Cambridge (unless they go up to the A14).

The other roads are more controversial. They are mostly for buses, not cars (surprise). One is for the guided bus and will run alongside the railway line until it hits Newmarket Road. So this will impact the Leper Chapel, and it's hard to believe the Cambridge Preservation Society will leave that one without a protest. Another road is supposed to run through the middle of Coldham Common.

Boy, these transport guys know how to make enemies. Normally the middle class would enthusiastically support the anti-car measures, but a lot of the proposals here (mostly independent of the "congestion" charge proposal, although unlikely to go ahead without that money) are just going to raise the hackles of a lot of middle class people. Expect trouble ahead.

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