Congestion charging is a controversial subject in any county. But in Cambridgeshire it could become a reality on roads such as the A14. IAN MACKELLAR finds out what the latest thinking is at Shire Hall. THE county council s quest for a revenue-neutral co

Councillor John Reynolds

Congestion charging is a controversial subject in any county. But in Cambridgeshire it could become a reality on roads such as the A14. IAN MACKELLAR finds out what the latest thinking is at Shire Hall.

THE county council's quest for a revenue-neutral congestion charging regime has something of Three Men in a Boat about it.

It knows where it wants to get to, but isn't quite sure about the route or the timetable. Or even whether it will want to get there at all.

What will not happen, it promises, is that it will recommend a scheme to the Government that does not have the county's road users' support.

The starting point is that there is too much car traffic in Cambridge city and that, with huge expansion planned for other market towns in the county - notably Huntingdon, Ely and March - congestion will become far worse there, too.

The A10 between Cambridge and Ely, Hartford Road in Huntingdon and the B1090 between the A14 and St Ives are singled out in early studies as sure-fire congestion blackspots in a £770,000 study Cambridgeshire County Council is carrying out for the Government, with 50 per cent Whitehall funding.

The first part of the process was to put numbers to the problem, from which it emerged that morning peak traffic in Cambridge (on a do-nothing scenario) is forecast to increase by more than 10 per cent in the next 15 years as thousands of new homes are built in the county - 11,200 in Huntingdonshire alone.

This may not seem particularly daunting. But add 10 per cent to roads that are already heavily congested and you get gridlock.

A decade before charging was introduced in central London, congestion was estimated to be costing the capital's economy £15billion a year in lost output.

Although no one has done the sums for Cambridgeshire, delays on the A14, in Cambridge and the market towns are almost certainly into 10 figures - more than £1billion.

As a major contributor to national wealth, Cambridgeshire should be one of the first in line for further Government funding to reduce this burden on commerce and industry, says the county council's deputy leader, Councillor John Reynolds.

"The Government should be supporting the areas that are contributing most to economic development," he said.

Paradoxically, it is the Tory-controlled county council that continues to pursue a policy a Labour Government seems to have put into the "too difficult" basket - trying to persuade people it is in their own interest to change their transportation behaviour.

So the 10-year transport plan may have been put back in the box in Whitehall, but lives on in Cambridgeshire.

Some success has already been achieved in persuading people to change transport mode away from their cars. More people walk or cycle to work, particularly in Cambridge, as you would expect, but the county continues to be hailed as the success story in public transport use.

Outside central London, Cambridgeshire is virtually the only area in which bus patronage has consistently increased in recent years against a dismal national trend.

Cllr Reynolds heaps praise on the bus operators, who have reacted to increased revenue by investing in extra and more comfortable vehicles and who are expected shortly to commit themselves to long-term contracts to operate over the Huntingdon-Cambridge guided bus link, now due to open in December 2008.

"We need people to change their habits," Cllr Reynolds said. "If they took the bus or cycled just one day a week - so long as they didn't all do it on the same day, of course - people who usually drive could free up traffic in the city and the market towns for everyone."

The county has been working to persuade employers of the merits of moving away from reliance on cars and to change their schedules to times of day when roads are less congested, reducing both the volume of traffic and the time they waste sitting in queues.

The county is one of seven highway authorities to bid successfully for funds to look for solutions to road congestion. Its bid was based on finding a scheme that would be cost-neutral, so that, for example, people who paid a congestion charge in Cambridge city would get an equivalent reduction in Council Tax or income tax.

Equally, there could be cost reductions for rural road-users who paid more for fuel but did not contribute to urban congestion.

Cllr Reynolds accepts the county is still miles away from such a scheme. "It's just one of the options."

The statistical baseline - what the problem really is now and is likely to be in 15 years' time - is now complete, and the options for addressing it are starting to be evaluated. Expert consultants have been engaged to assess whether any of the proposed solutions, when they emerge, would actually work in practice.

But, don't hold your breath. Any radical solutions - CCC is likely to report back to Whitehall early next year - will need further Government funding and the endorsement of the motoring public.