On Thursday the 19th of March 2009 I watched the leader of the City Council Ian Nimmo-Smith and the Executive Councillor for Climate Change and Growth Sian Read give evidence to the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission.
- The Liberal Democrat councillors put forward their policy to extend a charge to include the park and ride sites. Cllr Nimmo-Smith said this charge would be different to the charge levied for driving into the city centre. The reasoning implied was a desire to reduce car travel in the wider sub-region, not just the city centre, in order to tackle climate change.
- Sian Reid described a vision of Cambridge that she, and her Liberal Democrat colleagues, aspire to. A city where everyone lives close to their work and commutes by walking or cycling.
- Cllrs Nimmo-Smith and Reid had no answers to the commissioner Brian Briscoe when he put it to them that their policy of an exemption or significant discount from a charge for city residents would result in the charge failing to achieve the desired reduction in congestion.
- Overall the pair of Liberal Democrats did what their electors presumably expected them to and sat on the fence. They said they needed more research, more modelling, and more detailed plans before they could decide if they were for or against a congestion charging scheme.
- The current TIF proposals involve the doubling of bus traffic in the city centre. Cllr Reid was very reluctant to express an opinion on if this could be achieved or not.
- The TIF proposals are only expected to result in a 1% carbon emissions reduction in the Cambridge sub-region despite the vast sums to be spent.
The City Council’s Presentation
City Council Leader, Ian Nimmo-Smith
Ian Nimmo-Smith stated that the council was general in support of the principle of applying for TIF funding (~£500m of central government funding for Transport infrastructure, currently conditional on a congestion charge). He said the support arose from a recognition of environmental problems affecting Cambridge, the planned growth of the region which he said we would not achieve without a coherent transport strategy. He also said that there was a prospect of additional growth arising from “regional planning processes”.
The City Council’s objectives were reported, in jargon and buzzword heavy terms as being to seek a coherent strategy and infrastructure to deal with the environmental and social challenges. We were told that increasing walking, cycling and public transport usage were key objectives. Public accountability and open governance is crucial as is public acceptability. Cllr Nimmo-Smith said he was not just looking at the city, but at a wider area.
Hinting at the charging for the park and ride parking policy Cllr Nimmo-Smith finished his introductory remarks by saying that “car free journeys need to start at home”.
Sian Reid, Executive Councillor for Climate Change and Growth
Cllr Reid said there were three points which she wished to raise :
- The first was a concern about the absence of governance arrangements in relation to the TIF funding, particularly money raised by the congestion charge. She complained about a lack of dialogue during the county council’s development of its proposals; she said they had been devised in isolation. The Joint Transport Forum was described as a slight improvement, but she complained that it was not a decision making group. She proposed (and Cllr Nimmo-Smith later supported) the idea of using provision in the Local Transport Act 2008 to create Local Transport Authorities as a mechanism for ensuring good governance. It is such a new authority, which the City Council want to see making decisions on spending money raised from a congestion charge. The current apparent arrangements which involve making decisions in secret were condemned. Cllr Reid said that there was a need to build trust.
- Cllr Reid’s second point was climate change. She said that this one off opportunity had to be used to reduce carbon emissions. The current TIF proposals are expected to result in a reduction in carbon emissions of only 1% across the sub-region as a whole, but 16-19% in Cambridge. The fact that CO2 pays no attention to the city boundary and the reduction across the whole area was the important figure was made. Cllr Reid having ridiculed the localised statistics on carbon reduction in the city went on to quote a “Cambridge target to reduce carbon emissions 23% on a per capita basis by 2020”. It’s garbled, but that’s what she said. Cllr Reid claimed that Cambridge residents were acutely aware of Climate Change and and an in-depth appreciation of the problem. She critised the TIF as being a car dependent strategy; proposing that there “should be a charge at the park and ride sites” as a way of changing this. It was left to members of the public to fill in the gap – to suggest what she must be implicitly recommending is public transport to bring people from where they live either right into the city or to from outlying areas into the park and ride sites. She didn’t even mention that, never mind provide any details.
- Cllr Reid’s third point related to the conservation of the city centre. She brought a photograph of buses in the city centre, and said that the city centre suffers from bus not car congestion. Another photograph she brought was of Gonville Place, here she appeared to be suggesting a need to “block cars further away”; she doesn’t want cars getting that close to her academic Disney world even though on Gonville Place they are beyond the reality checkpoint. Finally commenting on the details of a potential congestion charging system, she said that trips out of the city which were not creating congestion ought not be charged. She and Cllr Nimmo-Smith noted the broad support for congestion charging conditional on public transport improvements being in place before charging (however what the TIF scheme does not let us do is have the public transport improvements first, then make a decision on congestion charging). The problem of buses (park and ride and guided bus) not being allowed to stop at intermediate locations to service the city’s residential areas was raised, and the need for a city resident discount element in the scheme reemphasised.
Bus Capacity of Cambridge City Centre
Commissioner, Brian Briscoe challenged Cllr Reid on the subject of buses, he suggested it was a political judgement as to what the streets can take. He asked for the councillors’ opinions, as representatives of the people of Cambridge if a doubling of the bus numbers would be acceptable. When pushed Cllr Reid sad that she felt the city was already at its limit; but kept referring to the need to bring in “professionals who understand the historic nature of the city”, saying that we “mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water” and “mustn’t kill the golden goose”. In my view she indicated an unwillingness on the part of the Cambridge Liberal Democrats to express an opinion or take a decision without an “arse covering” expert report to blame if she got it wrong. Cllr Reid said there had been years of ideas for improvement of the management of the buses, such as changing priorities and off-bus ticketing; she didn’t appear to believe anything could actually make the buses in the city centre work more efficiently. Ian Nimmo-Smith also dodged the questioning claiming he and the city council weren’t really able to help as they didn’t have access to large teams of transport planners.
Reduce Congestion or Reduce CO2
Brian Briscoe asked if, in the view of the City Council the main aim of transport improvements was to reduce congestion or to try and combat climate change through reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Ian Nimmo-Smith answered clearly – the aim is to reduce climate change in the long term. He said that congestion was just a symptom of where we are in the evolution of our transport system.
On being asked by the commissioner if economic impacts on the city of a congestion charge were a key concern to the city council he was told it was. The pair used their “golden goose” analogy again, and this time suggested that they were aware that the charge risked killing their golden goose if badly implemented.
Exemptions and Discounts
The councillors were asked about their proposals for exemptions from and discounts on the congestion charge. It was pointed out that “government guidance” was not to offer discounts or exemptions at all. Brian Briscoe pointed out that any discounts or exemptions would result in less carbon emission reduction in the city of Cambridge and asked if the councillors felt this was an acceptable trade off.
Sian Reid described that as a “very good question” to laughter from the members of the public present. Cllr Reid tried to claim that there was “common ground between the objectives”, I have no idea what she might have meant by that.
When asked about the level of a residents’ discount figures from other cities were cited: London 90% discount, Manchester’s 100% discount (as it was to be a cordon scheme) and Stockholm’s 100% discount Cllr Reid said “Those figures are a starting point”. She was suggesting that the City Liberal Democrats are generally supporting a congestion charge scheme, but only one their electors don’t have to pay themselves.
Brian Briscoe decided to confirm this was what he was being told by asking which groups the city councillors wanted to see targeted for help with discounts. Ian Nimmo-Smith replied: “residents generally”. He did continue to say that a congestion charge would impact the poor most, and so he was in favor of help for those on low incomes. Brian Briscoe asked if he was suggesting a means tested congestion charge to which Ian Nimmo-Smith said he had not thought about a mechanism. He decided to talk his way out of the difficult point by launching into an extended comparison of the situations two different plumbers, one based just outside the city and one inside might find themselves in. He said the one based outside could do work out of the city when the charge was in operation and only come in when it was not. However a plumber based inside the city would have to pay a charge wherever he wanted to work while the charge was in force. Ian Nimmo-Smith said he was concerned about the inequality which would arise.
Close the Car Parks
The hypothetical question of why not close the city centre car parks to discourage people driving in was raised. It was pointed out this could be “done tomorrow”. Cllr Reid who is responsible for car parks defended them pointing to the new emission based car park charging system which she said would be accepted as people were used to paying their vehicle excise duty on the basis of emissions.
A Local Transport Authority
The councillors were asked for more details about their proposals for a local transport authority; Ian Nimmo-Smith suggested it ought take in the City and South Cambridgeshire with the county council as a partner. The commissioner pointed out the act was intended to enable closer co-operation between unitary authorities and county councils not in the way Nimmo-Smith was proposing, to which he said you should always look at what legislation makes possible, not merely at what those who devised it intended. When asked if the new authority ought be “free standing” or a “joint committee” councillors had no opinion either way.
Weekend traffic was mentioned, and agreed to be one of the worst times of the week. It was reported that the current proposed charging times were decided on so as to not alienate the retailers, suggesting they would be strongly opposed to a weekend charge.
Unpopularity of Road Pricing
The commissioner noted that the Liberal Democrats nationally were supportive of road pricing, and asked if the councillors had any idea why the policy their party supported was so unpopular with the British public. Neither councillor had an answer, but Cllr Reid suggested it could be because the benefits are not to the individual but to society more generally, implying that people are often selfish.
Impressions of Cambridge
The last question put to the councillors was what they thought a congestion charge would do to the impression of Cambridge.
Ian Nimmo-Smith said he thought it would be positive, showing Cambridge as a progressive environmentally aware city. Sian Reid said that it would promote the “dream Cambridge lifestyle of living close to work and cycling around”.
I oppose the congestion charge and the way the TIF scheme makes funding for transport improvements conditional on allowing Cambridge to be experimented on with a charge. I think that funding for transport improvements which are needed out be tied closely to the housing developments in the region which are causing the pressure to be put on the city. A significant fraction of the funding ought come from those development themselves, through some means of taxing the value created in the new properties which are built. Other funding ought be genuine investment made following calculated risks based on the likely return (in terms of increased productivity in the region, or in terms of the export potential of new technologies developed). Decisions on which areas in the country get the most public funding ought be made on the basis where those funds are best invested in the country’s future. Where the potential gains are predicable and substantial enough then vehicles for private funding (possibly foreign investment) could be created. (More on my views on the Congestion Charge)
In many areas I am an idealist; however I’m quite perturbed by the idea of pursuing Sian Reid’s vision of a Cambridge where everyone lives a “dream” cycling “lifestyle”. I am concerned that while we could create such a city, it would be an academic theme park for an elite and tourists. The University and the city wouldn’t function as well as it could in providing this city’s real contributions to the world in terms of energy efficiency, energy generation, climate science, it won’t attract the companies needed to take ideas out of the University and into the wider world. The city has to be a practical and attractive place to live and has a function to fulfill in the UK and global economy. I’m all for making radical and substantial improvements for cyclists, slowing traffic down in a a broader central area and giving cyclists priority in more locations, but I believe I’ve got a more healthy sense of realism than Cllr Reid and her “dreams”. I think the clearest place Cllr Reid and her party colleagues have got this wrong recently is opposing the A14 improvements which this city so desperately needs.
I was unimpressed with the Liberal Democrat’s performance in-front of the commission, they still have no clear policy, and what they did appear to be proposing that day was inconsistent – a congestion charge on one hand, but massive discounts rendering it ineffectual on the other.