Action is needed to tackle transport problems in Cambridge but plans for a city congestion charge face opposition, BBC Politics East debate was told.
The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) – a body comprising three local councils, businesses and the University of Cambridge – has proposed a sustainable travel zone, covering most of the city.
Vehicles driving into the zone between 07:00 and 19:00 during the week will have to pay a daily charge of at least £5.
The money raised will be used to pay for a £50m increase in the bus network, which will aim to create a “London-style” service, as well as improving walking and cycling infrastructure.
The BBC Politics East debate, held at the Perse School in Cambridge, included representatives from the Conservative Party, the Green Party, Labor and the Lib Dems. An invited audience was also present.
Peter Blake, GCP’s director of transport, said: “We live in a very successful environment. It’s a great place to live, work and be educated.”
What does GCP say would be the result of the plans
20,000 extra trips made by bus
50% reduction in the number of car journeys to Cambridge
Carbon emissions from transport fell by around 5%
10,000 additional parking and travel spaces provided around the city
But that created “challenges” in terms of traffic congestion and its impact on the environment.
“These are the possible solutions,” he said.
He said the key element of the proposals was to “significantly” improve the bus network, making it “much cheaper” and more reliable.
Roxanne De Beaux, executive director of Camcycle, supported the plans.
She said: “We need the sustainable travel zone to reduce the number of cars on our roads and to provide the space and funding we need to improve our public transport and walking and cycling infrastructure.
“We need fairer options for everyone, no matter what form of transport they choose. If not now, when? It’s time to create a sustainable travel zone for Cambridge.”
Mother Lucy Kingsford, 22, from Hauxton, near Cambridge, opposes the plans and said the charge would leave her and her son “socially isolated”.
“I live just outside Cambridge with my son Leo and I have to drive into the city every day to go to work, to see my friends and family, to take my son to nursery,” she said. .
“I couldn’t afford the congestion every day and this would leave me and Leo really socially isolated.”
Asked by a member of the audience if he supported the plan, Daniel Zeichner, Labor MP for Cambridge, said: “I want a changed transport system for this city.
“People spend 65 hours a year stuck in traffic in Cambridge. It’s a waste of time and damage to the environment, damage to people who want to go to work and damage to small businesses.
“We have an opportunity to have a transportation system that fits this city. We all know that this city has been struggling with transportation for a long time.
“We need a new bus system that is cheap, reliable and that people can believe in. I think it’s worth a try.”
Lucy Frazer, the Conservative MP for South East Cambridgeshire, said: “I am totally opposed to the charge because of the impact it will have on my constituents who have no other choice to get into Cambridge, other than to use their cars.
“They will be charged when there is no other option. I have spoken to businesses who are very concerned about the impact on their customers and staff.
“I spoke to people who work in the health sector, at Addenbrooke’s [Hospital] who are concerned about staff working there and people using the services, who will be charged.”
Bridget Smith, the Lib Dem leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, said she needed more information from the consultation before deciding whether the proposals were the “right answer”.
But she told her: “I drove here today because I have no choice. I live in Gamlingay. There is no bus service here but I have the privilege because I have a car. For many people, I have no bus service here. that choice.
“We also have 20% higher carbon emissions in Greater Cambridge than the rest of the country. The only way we have to deal with that is to take cars off the road. And traffic congestion is bad for people’s health and well-being .”
Naomi Bennett, leader of the Green group on Cambridge City Council, said the debate was not just about “yes and no”.
“The Greens want to see better public transport and fairer options. The problem we have with this consultation is that it is very much a work in progress and not a final product,” she said.
“So we are keen to see better public transport but my party has also submitted 11 pages for improvements to the current consultation which we are keen to see.
“This debate cannot be yes and no. What we have to do is listen together and find a consensus that works for all of us.”
Addenbrooke’s Hospital would be within the overcrowded charging area.
Dr Michael More, chairman of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, said: “We welcome the debate. I think everyone knows that transport is falling apart in Cambridge. We have a problem. ‘Can we improve public transport? sustainably?’ it would be a basic question for our team.
“We employ 13,000 people. Some of our staff are very much against it. Some of our staff can see the benefits of it. So I welcome a debate so that we can satisfy ourselves that public transport can be improved and cycling measures to improve.”
Professor Andrew Neely, Senior Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge University, said the university wanted to see an improved transport system and was talking to the GCP about its plans to double its investment in buses.
He said he wanted the charge to be capped at £1 for intra-city travel, as well as improved cycle routes.
Candy Richards, from the Federation of Cambridgeshire Small Businesses, said she was concerned that small businesses would “bear the cost” of the congestion charge.
She said a survey found that 66% of small traders needed access to a vehicle.
Shapour Meftah, of the Mill Road Traders Association, said businesses would either “suffer” or have to “pass the charge on to their customers”.
Analysis: By Ben Schofield, BBC East Political Correspondent
Let’s start with the areas of agreement.
Pollution and congestion: bad. Better buses in the city and county: good. That much was evident from all sides.
A consensus also emerged that the current recommendations needed to be changed before they could be implemented.
The disagreements were over how much they could be changed – or whether drivers should be cut back entirely.
But the alternative ideas for raising money for buses – or the precise conditions for what needs to change and how they could be changed – have been much more difficult.
Yes, the GCP is combing through 24,000 consultation responses, which could suggest amendments over the summer.
And the trouble with tweaking the plan is that with every tweak comes the risk that it won’t deliver the promised benefits.
Oonagh Monkhouse, from Papworth hospital, said in the audience that the way the debate is handled is important. The team, she said, is thinking about their future.
They are not the only ones.
You can see more of this story on BBC One’s Politics East on Sunday, February 5 at 10:00 GMT, and it’s also available on BBC iPlayer before.
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