Congestion Charge – East Area

Thursday, February 28th, 2008. 11:02pm

I was able to speak to Paul Cook, Cambridgeshire’s Head of Transport Policy and Strategy during the Congestion Charge exhibition held before Cambridge City Council’s East Area Committee meeting on Thursday 28th February.

I let Mr Cook, and the councillors know that I opposed the congestion charge, thought central government was blackmailing the people of Cambridge by saying we could only have money for transport improvements if we had a congestion charge and that our response should be to reject that blackmail attempt. I believe that we should question the scale and pace of the proposed doubling of the number of homes and people in Cambridge and the surrounding area and where there is development ensure it occurs only after or alongside the necessary transport improvements.

I let Mr Cook know that I did not think there had been an effective consultation. Not least because almost all of the consultation happened after the bid to central Government had been made. I asked why they were still drawing the process out now.

I suggested there was a lack of clarity about what is the consultation is on?

  • Is it on if we want a congestion charge or not? (which is how it appears to be billed at the East Area Committee)
  • Is it on how we want the congestion charge to operate?
  • Is it on how to improve transportation in and around Cambridge, ie. What to do with the 500 million on offer from central Government?
  • Is it on how to respond to central Government’s offer of 500 million, conditional on a Congestion Charge?
  • Is it on should we double the population of Cambridge and the immediate area in the next decade?
  • Is it on how we should manage the expansion of the city?
  • Is it asking should we have a referendum on a Congestion Charge?
  • Is it on should we accept central Government funding if the County Council’s bid is successful?

Over the course of the last six months or so it appears that the consultation has flitted between these subjects and has lacked focus or clarity.

I told Mr Cook I have witnessed two flawed consultation exercises:
1. On the 17th of September, there was a meeting organised by the Chamber of Commerce, and Federation of Small Businesses, advertised in the Cambridge Evening News as an “open meeting” at which the lead officers, and council leaders from the county and city council were present. In the most brazen display of irony I have ever seen there was a charge of £11 made for entry to this meeting, the only one where we have had all the key people in one room participating in a debate. City Council leader Ian Nimmo-Smith has told me he didn’t know of the entry charge, and assured me he will make himself aware of such charges in the future.

There has not been any free public meeting with as good a panel of participants as the FSB/Chamber of commerce event.

Mr Cook told me he was unaware of the charge, and blamed costs for the lack of any free dedicated public meetings.

2. At the North Area committee on the 10th of January the discussion of the TIF bid was brief, and did not give many people an opportunity to make their views, many walked out clearly angry and disgusted that they had not had an opportunity to have their say. The congestion charge presentation at the north area meeting was not advertised on the county council’s website.

I asked Mr Cook if anonymous responses or those lacking an address/ postcode would be accepted and he confirmed they would be, he also confirmed that multiple responses from one address would be accepted as you might get from house sharers, couples with differing views etc.

I asked about what the county council thought the views of the people of Cambridge and the surrounding area were, he told me the county council believed if a referendum was held it would come out 60:40 against the congestion charge. He went on to say that the council believed that people would like it once they had it!

When I spoke I started by getting Mr Cook to repeat what he had said to me individually about the 60:40 split to the whole meeting, I have since followed this up with a freedom of information request for any document on which this opinion is based.

I then asked why: “Taking the money, doing the improvements, and then considering if we need a congestion charge at that point is not an option”. Mr Cook and Mr Pegram replied to say that was not an option, and it was likely that central government would give the money as a loan in the first place only to be written off once congestion charging was in place. The public response to this clear blackmail was not positive with a few people coming up with silly ideas to get round this problem such as charging a penny, or introducing the charge for one day only.

Only one member of the public spoke in favour of the charge (though he was under the misapprehension the money raised would be spent in Cambridge), and many many against. Two or three appeared undecided, but they had great faith this would not be the thin end of the wedge, for example that the time period would not increase, showing a degree of trust in what the County Council officers were saying which was not widely shared.

Notable contributions:
County Councillor Roy Pegram – Deputy leader stated that money raised by a Cambridge Congestion Charge would not be spent in Cambridge, but spent on the Market Towns of Cambridgeshire.

City Councillor Herbert as he asked County Council Officers for the publication of documents describing options other than those included in the TIF bid.

County Councillor Roy Pegram kept talking in kilometers

County Councillor Roy Pegram said that if the majority are against congestion charging we won’t go-ahead with the TIF project.

A member of the public noted the lack of circular bus routes around the city rather than radial ones into the City, supporting her point with the fact trips within the city’s suburbs make up a high proportion of the traffic.

People pointed out that unrestricting the M11/A14 junctions which are currently restricted would also reduce cross-city traffic.

What I had planned to say at the meeting was:

I don’t think there has been an effective consultation. Not least because almost all of the consultation happened after the bid to central Government had been made. Quite why they’re still drawing the process out now is baffling to me (perhaps they’re trying to spend the millions they’ve allocated to the consultation?).

I would like there to be an option for the people of Cambridge to go to central Government and say that we don’t want to be blackmailed, but believe we can fix our current and future congestion problems given the proposed investment, without a congestion charge. I believe that response to the city’s current predicament would have popular support. It might even be our representatives view, as they say the congestion charge will be the last element of any scheme, but they’re not being open and straightforward about it.

I oppose a congestion charge, primarily on the grounds of invasion of privacy and restriction of freedom, as well as believing it will not be good for the City as a whole, driving companies and people out of the City. In London we’ve seen privacy concerns overridden and more and more trawling powers given to the police, the potential for this resulting in a worse “police state” environment in the city is greater. How long does the state need keep information about where my car was on a particular night, who I drove down the road behind.

Not to give residents an exemption, while essential for the functioning of the scheme according to those proposing it, is against rights that I consider absolutely fundamental, the right to enjoy and have access to your property.

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