Giving Evidence to the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission


Thursday, July 2nd, 2009. 5:01pm


Cambridgeshire Transport Commissioners Brian Briscoe and Tony Travers heard from the police, academics, and city residents at a session on the 25th of June 2009.

Cambridgeshire Transport Commissioners Brian Briscoe and Tony Travers heard from the police, academics, and city residents at a session on the 25th of June 2009.

On the 25th of June 2009 the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission held an evidence gathering session in the University Centre. I was one of a number of Cambridge residents asked, on the basis of our written representations, to speak to the commissioners in person. My submission is available via this link.

I introduced myself as a completely independent individual, speaking on my own behalf, and said that my interest in the commission’s work arose from an appreciation that the growth of the region and the associated transport challenges is one of the biggest challenges facing the region.

I said:

I oppose the proposed congestion charge. I’d like to use my opportunity to speak here to focus on three reasons why:

  1. The bribery element of how we as a country are proposing to distribute the money available to invest in transport.
  2. Privacy and civil liberties – I want to raise that because particularly as I think its an important aspect and one which has not been covered in the evidence so far.
  3. The potential effect of the charge on the viability of the city.

Bribery

We would not be considering a congestion charge if it was not for central government trying to bribe Cambridge into running a congestion charge experiment in the city.

I would prefer to see funding, not be a bribe for an experiment, but to:

  • Follow development, and be closely linked to housing growth.
  • Be treated more like “investment” – the nation ought invest its money for transport improvement where it is expected to generate the best return in terms of improved economic productivity in an area.
  • Also be investment, for example we could be investing in new technologies which the country could then sell abroad. Projects such as the ULTra pods appear attractive from that point of view.
  • I think, as a general point, much more public money ought be genuinely “invested” rather than merely spent, we should always be looking at the return.

Privacy

This is not something I’ve heard mentioned in evidence so far, but I think it is something which matters to Cambridge residents. I think one main reason why so many vote Liberal Democrat is their record on privacy issues, and the organisation No2ID is strong in the city. The Congestion Charge would be highly intrusive. The charge will result in all movements in and out of, as well as within, the city being monitored by the state. I am very uncomfortable with this. My location is private and personal information. In London shortly after the congestion charge was introduced we saw all records handed over to the police and security services to be data-mined. I believe that such information should only be available to the police after they have gone through a process akin to obtaining a search warrant. I have asked questions such as how long will information be kept about things like where my car was on a particular night, who I drove down the road behind but not had any assurances.

[The commissioners put this latter question to County Council representatives during the final session of the Transport Commission; no confident reply was forthcoming, and the commissioners noted it was hard for people to judge the proposals with such key bits of information missing]

Viability of the City

A congestion charge threatens the economic viability of the area. We heard from earlier evidence this evening that the retail sector expected it might reduce its takings by 8%. It might make companies decide to locate elsewhere. Cambridge businesses are of enormous importance to the UK. We need to ensure the city remains viable for as broad a range of people, businesses and activities as possible. I would not like to see Cambridge become a university theme park, the city has a broader role than that.

One of the driving forces for any transport strategy in the current climate is carbon emissions / energy use. One of the primary ways Cambridge can contribute to reducing the amount of energy used, reducing energy costs and pollution and improving energy security is through the academic research which goes on in the Universities and the technologies developed by high tech businesses in the area. We need to keep the city attractive to academics and businesses and maintain the cluster we have here. If we reduce emissions from the city’s transport infrastructure, but negatively impact research into areas such as photovoltaics, battery technology, renewable energy, nuclear physics and many other areas where Cambridge’s innovations have the potential to change the world we will not be having a beneficial effect overall. We need to keep the national, and global picture in mind. There is a need to keep Cambridge attractive to world class academics and international businesses.

The congestion charge is a tax which will remove money from the local economy, it will make a wide range of services from deliveries to plumbing more expensive as well as perhaps raising the prices of goods in the city’s shops.

Other Points

  • I don’t think there was a sufficient contribution to this process from the police. While PC Holgate presented interesting and valuable perspective it was not complete. It might be the case the police think the Congestion Charge might reduce crime – reduce the ability for criminals to move about unmonitored? We’ve not heard evidence on that, and we also don’t know what information the police will be seeking from the system. [I had suggested to the Police Authority that they ought send someone more senior]
  • Many democratic representatives such as opposition councillors from the city have not yet given evidence [We also didn't hear from MPs]. City Conservatives have quite different views to those currently in the ruling group on the County Council, or it would have been interesting to hear from them. Given Professor Travers’ passion for democracy the omission surprises me. A significant number of people positively vote Labour and Conservative in the city. [The commissioners responded on this point and said they had not wanted the commission to become a forum for political debate, and that such councillors could have made representations as members of the public]
  • A congestion charge will be an inequitable tax; poor hardest hit; and will benefit those who want to see an idealistic utopian city where everyone walks and cycles everywhere – that’s out of touch with the practicalities of businesses and families.
  • I finished by suggesting that existing methods to deter people driving through the city centre such as pinch points and whole areas you can drive into but not out of were effective and could be extended. I suggested the use of more cobbles, painting the roads red or similar deterrents.

While I didn’t have time to include them, other items on my notes included discussing unrestricting the M11 and A14 junctions (or building link roads) – which I believe would reduce the number of people coming into the city centre to go back out again.

I also don’t think I mentioned my suggestion that now traffic models for the city have been produced at huge public expense they ought to be available for ideas from members of the public to be tested. We ought see what the models say about tidal flow on certain roads, making certain roads one way, or even having a one way ring-road as proposed by some giving evidence. Personally I am very sceptical of computer models, but now we have them we might as well use them. (I’m not sure if they are in public ownership, or if, as was the case with the modelling for the CB1 development, an ex. member of county council staff is hired as a consultant to provide modelling related services.)

2 comments/updates on “Giving Evidence to the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission

  1. Martin

    Three points:

    1) You say this is bribery. Why is this alone ‘bribery’ when every other Local Authority funding pot surely comes with strings attached too?

    2) The refusal of a charge would result in the loss of £500m of transport investment. What if the government continues not to change the rules? It’s all very wishing that the rules were different – but they are not. Do you think that loss of such massive investment would be regrettable?

    3) You say “A congestion charge threatens the economic viability of the area.”. What about the fact that *congestion* also threatens the economic viability of the area? Both have costs on business and the public, just apportioned different ways.

  2. Richard Article author

    1. I see the offer of money, conditional on a congestion charge, as bribery because to get the positive improvements and investment we have to accept something which is in my view not going to be good for the city. I understand that if you see the congestion charge as positive it doesn’t look like bribery. I don’t know what other local authority funding comes with “strings” or assessment criteria anything like a congestion charge. For example the only criteria associated with a current funding scheme for building affordable housing on public land are: value for money; deliverability; strategic fit and design and quality. If the TIF was offered on the basis of: “You can have £500m to spend on transport in and around Cambridge if you build 50,000 new homes* in the area” that would be similar, but would make more sense to me, as the money would be negating some of the effects of building the new homes, and making the new homes more practical and pleasant places to live. In that context £500m is £10K on the price of a house, or just 5%. I wouldn’t support a scheme which only paid out if we hit the target number of homes, the money ought simply follow the new homes and not be used as a means of coercion / persuasion.

    2. I don’t think that government is so remote and immoveable that the people of Cambridge cannot influence it. I think we can make the argument that this region is one of the places it ought spend the money it has earmarked for transport improvements. David Howarth clearly doesn’t agree, he’s not mentioned the TIF once in Parliament yet.

    Why can’t we put a TIF bid in with a non-congestion charge form of demand management? Why is the government insisting we have a congestion charge? Restricting traffic going over Magdelene Bridge and Silver Street Bridge has been effective; restricting access to more roads, creating more “dead end” areas of the city would reduce traffic in the city centre. Why can’t we propose spending the money on schemes like the link roads and unrestricting junctions rather than on a congestion charge? One problem I have with the TIF proposals was that they were not presented as a set of options but as a single proposal. I understand that it is because of the impending government deadline.

    Of course I would regret Cambridge losing out on £500m of investment; but it’s no good having that money if the proposals for how it is to be spent are not in themselves expected to significantly impact congestion in the city (they’re only to improve alternatives and so make the congestion charge more palatable), and I don’t think a congestion charge is a worthwhile price to pay.

    I, like all other Cambridgeshire residents, have been asked by the Government if £500m, to be spent as outlined in the TIF proposals is enough to buy my support for a congestion charge. In my view it isn’t.

    3. I don’t think congestion currently threatens the economic viability of the area in the same way as a congestion charge would. The costs of congestion are less direct. I realise we have to look to the future, and account for the expansion of the city and new development, but we should not link that too closely with the TIF bid. Already we have had cumulative expansion of the city of Cambridge which has added significantly to the pressure on the transport infrastructure and we have not ensured that there have been transport improvements associated with those developments. As Cambridge is growing, it needs to demand at least its fair share of taxation raised in the area back to spend here; we need a strong representative in Parliament making the case for investment in the local area on the grounds it is in the national interest. I don’t see any other option other than for government to “change the rules” and think we have to fight for that.

    *While I think the Cambridge and the surrounding area can expand. How, and how fast, we build new homes is a key part of what needs to be decided. I would prefer to see more decisions made locally on the details, top-down targets ought only be used as a last resort.

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