County council bottles congestion charge plan

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council s new leadership has ducked a decision on congestion charging in the city of Cambridge, potentially risking the chance of public transport improvements worth more than £500million across the county. The council has got cold f

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council's new leadership has ducked a decision on congestion charging in the city of Cambridge, potentially risking the chance of public transport improvements worth more than £500million across the county.

The council has got cold feet about the scheme that was generally opposed by business and Cambridge residents - largely the cause of the problem - but widely welcomed by the rest of the county and public transport operators.

A public consultation earlier in the year showed a small majority of respondents unhappy with the principal of congestion charging in the city. But two-thirds said that, if public and other transport improvements were put in place before charging began - always an underlying insistence of county council officials and the previous cabinet - then two out of three people would support it.

But it has divided the cabinet of the Conservative-controlled cabinet, and was a key issue in the May election of Councillor Jill Tuck as the authority's new leader.

Cllr Tuck, who acknowledges that doing nothing about congestion in the city is not an option, knows that some of her cabinet colleagues feel strongly on the issue and is reluctant to upset them.

The solution to that dilemma has been to kick the issue into the long grass, ignore the fact that this is the sort of decision councillors are elected to make and ask organisations across the county to nominate representatives to a so-called commission that will take resolution of the problem back to square one.

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Anyone who drives in Cambridge in the morning peak - and many from all over Cambridgeshire do - knows that the problem has been dire for more than 30 years. With tens of thousands of extra homes being built in the city and its fringes over the next few years and with increasing car ownership and use, the city is at risk of gridlock if nothing is done.

The plan, warmly espoused by previous leader Councillor Shona Johnstone, would have traded a charging scheme of about £4 a day for vehicles in the city centre in the weekday morning peak against ambitious improvements in the city and the county's market towns, including Huntingdon, St Neots, St Ives, Ely, March and Wisbech.

Last autumn, the council put in a £514miilion bid for Transport Innovation Fund money - the same pot that will be underpinning Manchester's congestion charge regime - and then consulted the public, with mixed but, on its own terms, supportive results.

Yet, yesterday (Tuesday) it said it was "going back to the drawing board".

A spokesman said: "The county council has announced plans to set up a commission of key public and private sector bodies to come up with recommendations for an innovative and far-reaching transport strategy for the Cambridge area.

"Invitations to join the commission have today been sent to organisations including Cambridgeshire's city and district councils, Addenbrooke's, the university, Cambridgeshire Horizons, police, Marshalls, Stagecoach, the Chamber of Commerce and Trade, Federation of Small Businesses and the Greater Cambridge Partnership."

Cllr Tuck said: "We have listened carefully over the last few months and it is clear that the Transport Innovation Fund scheme we put forward for consultation last autumn does not have sufficient support either from other key organisations or the public and needs, at the very least, refinement."

"The fund does give us a unique opportunity to attract substantial Government funding for transport improvements and we will continue to work with them in the hope of securing that. The £500million we have requested is way in excess of anything we could ever raise locally, but such a huge cash injection does have to be accompanied by a congestion charging scheme.

"It will be for the commission to determine what is best for Cambridge, but any scheme must have support from key public and private organizations, and also the public."

"The task of the commission will be to take evidence and listen to views from all interested groups and come up with recommendations on how to tackle the growing problem of congestion."

Council officers are still talking to the Department for Transport about the TIF bid. They have always accepted that the details would have to be refined to achieve public backing.