A Congestion Charge for Cambridge – The Debate Continues

Thursday, March 5th, 2009. 12:55pm

Andy Harper : Richard Taylor

I oppose introducing a congestion charge to Cambridge, and will continue to oppose it for at least a decade. We are reducing car use in the city centre without it. A congestion charge isn’t the way to preserve the historic core of the city, a congestion charge will damage the viability of the city and reduce it to a “Disneyland” for university students and tourists. We can continue to deter car use in the city centre through restricting access as we already have though rising bollards and by changing the physical nature of the roads so that they prioritise pedestrians and cyclists. [more...]

The Andie Harper show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire was today discussing the congestion charge in light of the first evidence gathering session of a “Transport Commission” which was held last night. I sent in the below message which was read out on air:

I was at last night’s “Transport Commission” meeting in the Guildhall in Cambridge.

One thing all agreed on was: “congestion is always going to be an issue in a successful area if it cannot access the resources it has itself generated”.

Cambridge is a successful city, despite the congestion. While we are economically successful we spend very little on transport; we shouldn’t be in a position where we are having to make an argument to government, and submit to blackmail, to introduce a congestion charge to get our own money which we’ve paid in taxes back to spend in the region.

As you pointed out [when interviewing Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner] a vote for Labour at the next election is a vote for a Labour government, and it is a Labour Government which is trying to bribe us into having a congestion charge rather than letting us make a local decision here. The Conservatives have been pushing the congestion charge at the county council, and the Liberal Democrats have no consistent policy, they were even recently opposing the A14 work – one of the transport improvements we desperately need.

None of the main parties offer the opportunity to vote clearly against the congestion charge. We don’t have to vote for a party though – anyone can stand! If party politics isn’t working for us – lets get rid of it.

More on my views and suggestions for alternatives are included in an article I wrote in February 2007 about the congestion charge proposals . I have also commented specifically on the privacy implications of a congestion charge, the effect on the East of Cambridge, and Liberal Democrat inconsistency on the question. I have also questioned where the County Council have spent some of the many millions of pounds they have been given by central Government to investigate the option of congestion charging.

I have also questioned the value of party politics to Cambridge on many occasions.

3 comments/updates on “A Congestion Charge for Cambridge – The Debate Continues

  1. Martin, Cambridge

    “a congestion charge will damage the viability of the city”

    This statement fails to recognise that the city’s viability is already damaged by congestion. Time sitting in traffic jams is unproductive time that cannot be charged for. (And I didn’t mention leisure because I can’t imagine too many people go to play golf at 7.30am-9.30am, which is the only period of the proposed charge.)

    Businesses and everyone else are *already paying a congestion charge*, in the form of time wasted sitting in traffic jams. Forward-thinking business groups like London First recognised that and for that reason supported the congestion charge in London (though not its extension). Bus users and cyclists have also benefited enormously in particular.

    People seem to think that queuing is the best way of rationing a scarce resource, when it comes to transport. That idea seems to be more akin to certain political philosophies which the West has tended to shy away from.

    Coverage, of the sort in the media over the last year, which fails even to mention a massive up-front investment in transport (as in, 10 times current levels) is not going to help people face the reality that massive future housing growth in the area is going to result in far worse congestion problems in the future. Sure, there is a short-term blip in housing due to the economy, but the idea that the housing problems of Cambridge are going to disappear when things come back in a few years seems unlikely.

    You can argue about the government choosing whether to give back our own money, but why should Cambridge be a special case rather than every other city in the country? And if it says ‘no’, what then – is £500m investment really not worth serious consideration?

    You mention the term “bribe” – do you disagree with the principle of creating specific funds – pots of money – for specific purposes?

    What’s your plan for areas other than “the city centre”? They are the areas that are going to get worse. I can’t think of many more places that rising bollards will help with. Newmarket Road, for instance, certainly wouldn’t be helped by that. Cycling too needs serious money – £3.6m for the Cycling Demonstration Town doesn’t go far compared to continental investment levels where cycling is far, far better. And bus transport isn’t going to improve while there are cars clogging the roads: we need both sticks and carrots.

    Have a look at
    as well.

  2. Richard Article author

    Hi Martin, thanks for your comment, this is exactly the sort of debate I want to have here on this site. I have tried to address all of your points in my response:

    My opposition is to the principle of the charge. I do not believe that the period of charging will be only 0730-0930 for long; once the infrastructure has been built the temptation for extending the charged period will be very great.

    I am aware of the costs of congestion to the economy. We heard two estimates from the experts giving evidence to the commission on Wednesday. Mr Cannard of the East of England Regional Assembly said the cost of congestion would rise from £1 billion per year in 2003 to £2 billion per year in 2021. John Williamson of the Government Office for the East of England said that if left unchecked congestion was expected to cost the region’s economy £20 billion per year by 2025. Whatever the actual figure of course we want to minimse this. I don’t think expressing a view that a congestion charge will damage the viability of the city is incompatible with either recognising the costs of congestion or committing to try and reduce them.

    The costs of congestion arise not only directly from wasting the time of people stuck in traffic, but they are also environmental in terms of noise and pollutants, and there is an affect on the attractiveness of Cambridge as a place to live and work which has a knock on effect on if companies choose to locate themselves in the city or not. Congestion, particularly the future predicted congestion which will accompany the growth of the city is a significant problem which needs significant investment, imagination and effort to resolve. I fully accept the problem.

    Many professional services businesses, retail businesses and others are reliant on customers who might decide to travel to another centre if there was a congestion charge in Cambridge. The price of goods will increase as it becomes more expensive to transport items into the city. Cambridge will become uncompetitive.

    Cambridge is not London, the problems and solutions are very different. The proposal here is for the congestion charge to apply to the whole city, even the residential estates. Many people will not be able to drive out of their homes without paying a charge.

    Bus users suffer from congestion too, especially as the city’s bus-lanes are far from complete. We need functional and enforced bus-lanes, this will become more important when the guided busses are let loose on the city’s streets. There’s an urgent need to ensure the proposed guided bus stops, to be built out into the roads, do not make the streets of Cambridge more dangerous for cyclists

    What we’re not being allowed to do is look at the effect of the up-front investment and assess if, after it has been spent, we still need a congestion charge.

    I don’t think we ought to be looking for congestion to self-regulate, for queuing to be the way we ration the use of the roads. I think we should be looking to “organically” reduce demand, rather than reduce demand “artificially” reduce it through a congestion charge. I am encouraged by the successes of the last decade, where the number of trips has increased, the population has increased but car use in the city centre has by some measures dropped and certainly hasn’t been rising too.

    I agree that the effects of the recession are not going to be long term, and the population of the region will still grow massively and it in no way reduces the need to improve transport. In fact the recession is a reason for getting on with major infrastructure projects now. Transport, power and IT are all areas I think we ought be investing in.

    Treating Cambridge as a special case is not what I’m proposing, it is what the current government are proposing and I’m rejecting. They want Cambridge to use the city to conduct an experiment on the feasibility of a Congestion charge in a whole city, they’re prepared to pay us in return for being experimented on. The Government ought to be ‘us’, society working together. The funding for transport improvements ought to be tightly linked to new development. It is the new housing and increasing population which the funds for transport improvements should be concomitant on, not a congestion charge. That needs to be from central government as already I think developer contributions are too high and risk discouraging development but they are nowhere near the magnitude required to fund the infrastructure improvements needed to cope with the extra demand arising from the developments.

    You’ve asked me what my plan is for areas other than “the city centre”? I, unlike those proposing the congestion charge, wouldn’t touch the residential estates where there are no congestion problems. As for congestion across the city – in summary my approach would be: “Be bold”. I’ve got a list of some ideas this article, unrestricting the restricted A14 and M11 junctions will reduce the traffic needing to go into the city centre to go back out again would I believe have a huge effect on the city.

    On Newmarket Road, some of the commercial activity needs to move, out of town, and that space in the city centre currently given over to shops which attract people in cars and have huge car parks is one of the most suitable places in the city for new high density residential development. The six story blocks of flats built on Arbury park and proposed for the NAIB site would be much more suited there. Also on Newmarket Road, management of football traffic is another thing we do awfully here, given the small volume of it. The few warning signs we do have of areas of congestion in the city are poor. Information is another key point; I’m sure many fewer people would join queues of traffic if they knew they were there in time to avoid them.

    I’m in favour of a true broadband Britian – fibre optic to the home for all; I think improvements to infrastructure like that have a role to play too in reducing demand for transport.

    We’re already seeing the people of Cambridge succeed in calling the government’s bluff on their attempted bribe. Funding for projects which have previously been considered only possible as a result of the TIF funding like Chesterton Station are now receiving funding and are set to go-ahead anyway.

    I will return to this subject, as there’s lots more to say, I’ve hardly mentioned the guided bus and Chesterton Station and not mentioned the bus station or CB1 and many other key elements of the city’s transport network. I’ll publish my submission to the commission, as well as my notes and comments on Wednesday’s meeting soon.

  3. Richard Article author


    We both want the investment in the Cambridge region’s infrastructure which is offered by the TIF. The only element we disagree on is the congestion charge; what I don’t accept is that the investment has to be conditional on the congestion charge. I think there are better ways of distributing the money. I think it has to follow development, perhaps also be related to need and a measure of expected value for money / impact. We can resist this bribe.

    Funding from general taxation, as TIF is, is just one part of the mix.

    Where is the major transport infrastructure contribution from the developments themselves? That’s missing. It needs to be raised via mechanisms including S106 and “Roof Taxs” / Planning Gain Tariffs.

    As far as I know the level of the “roof tax” / planning gain tariff is still being considered for the Cambridge development areas. This is another potential source of funds for infrastructure, arising from the “planning gain”. Some of this “gain” also needs to be directed to developers and land owners in order to drive the project, and some ought go to reducing the final retail price of the homes.

    My “back of the envelope” (in Google’s search box) calculations suggest there’s a planning gain of about £1 billion with respect to Northstowe, that could be split three ways: i/developers/landowner ii/ reducing house prices iii/ infrastructure. If that split was equal it would equate to £30K off the price of an average house (with knock on effects on regional house prices in addition to the supply/demand effect of development) and make £330 million for infrastructure.

    You can double that infrastructure number to get a figure for the Cambridge region, and double that again for Cambridgeshire.

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