MARKET towns in Cambridgeshire may have little to gain directly from £500million plans to improve public transport ahead of the introduction of a possible congestion-charging régime in Cambridge city. But, if Cambridgeshire County Council decides to go ah

MARKET towns in Cambridgeshire may have little to gain directly from £500million plans to improve public transport ahead of the introduction of a possible congestion-charging régime in Cambridge city.

But, if Cambridgeshire County Council decides to go ahead with an application for Transport Innovation Fund cash for improvements, it could free up other money for better transport in the rest of the county, Sir Brian Briscoe, chairman of the county council's new transport commission, told The Hunts Post this week.

He was speaking ahead of a public consultation meeting in St Ives next Monday - the first time the commission will have ventured outside the city to hear evidence.

It is all about Cambridge and parts of South Cambridgeshire,

The county council has always maintained that, while the majority of the potential Whitehall cash - if it materialises - will be spent on public transport improvements and cycling and pedestrian facilities in Cambridge, there would also be substantial benefits for the market towns of Huntingdonshire, East Cambridgeshire and Fenland.

The St Ives meeting - another is scheduled for Ely and a third planned for Fenland, though no date has yet been set - follows a series in Cambridge at which the commission has taken oral evidence, largely from the city and South Cambridgeshire.

Sir Brian said the commission would continue to take oral evidence until April 27 and resume sessions in June after a period of purdah in the run-up to the county council and European Parliament elections on June 4. His report is expected in July.

The commission is a device to kick the whole congestion-charging issue - which has caused a huge split in the controlling Tory group on the county council - into the long grass until after the June elections in the hope that it will not become a party issue on the stump.

The commission's timescale means that the Tories, who will almost certainly still control the council after polling day, will not have to face the electorate for another four years after the cabinet's autumn decision on the congestion-charging application. Ironically, that could well be just about the time the chickens from that decision come home to roost.

Sir Brian was at pains to point out that his was a "commission for the whole county" and that he and his technical adviser, respected transport economist Professor Tony Travers, from the London School of Economics, will hear from Huntingdonshire District Council, St Ives Town Council, Buckden and Needingworth Parish Councils, the Federation of Small Businesses and a few local people who had expressed original ideas at the St Ives meeting next week.

The idea for the city and parts of South Cambridgeshire was that everyone would be within a kilometre of a bus service every 20 minutes, a prospect that would encourage many people to abandon their cars, and a higher level of public service than most of England currently enjoys.

But Huntingdonshire is not currently included in that ambition, and it will be for councillors, council officials and members of the public to make the case for that aspiration for better bus links next Monday.

Although TIF money can be spent only on urban congestion and its causes, that could include measures to encourage people from outlying districts, such as Huntingdonshire, to travel to the city by public transport, Sir Brian said.

In the light of Manchester's rejection of equivalent proposals for congestion charging in exchange for huge improvements in public transport, should Cambridgeshire follow the Swedish model, we asked Sir Brian?

(This is not an issue about young blondes, but Stockholm city council's successful referendum held a year after congestion charging and major public transport improvements had been introduced.)

"It's an interesting idea, but not part of our remit," Sir Brian said. "How the county council gets political consent is a matter for the county council.