Council chief to head commission with £500m at stake

WHETHER Cambridgeshire wins local transport improvements worth more than £500million or misses out on the Government's cash is now in the hands of a career local government officer.

WHETHER Cambridgeshire wins local transport improvements worth more than £500million or misses out on the Government's cash is now in the hands of a career local government officer.

Sir Brian Briscoe, until recently chief executive of the councils' umbrella body, the Local Government Association, was yesterday (Tuesday) appointed by Cambridge County Council to chair a new transport commission set up by the county's controlling Conservative group to make a decision they were unwilling to make.

But Sir Brian promised to look at transport issues across the county, not just whether charging for driving on central Cambridge streets in the morning peak would solve the city's congestion problems. And he said he wanted the widest possible public involvement.

"My inclination is that we ought not to confine ourselves simply to the centre of Cambridge, but also to the effects the Transport Innovation Fund proposals might have in rural areas and in other urban areas of the county," he told The Hunts Post.

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Cambridgeshire has been working with TIF seed-corn cash for some years, working towards a possible congestion charging scheme for the city. But the sweetener was to have been investment of around £514million in improving public transport and other, to date unspecified, transport initiatives that would have benefited the whole county.

With enthusiastic backing from then-leader Councillor Shona Johnstone, an outline case went to the Department for Transport a year ago. But when she resigned the leadership over an unrelated issue last November, colleagues started to get cold feet and the TIF proposal became a major issue in last May's leadership contest.

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Shortly afterwards, the transport commission idea emerged as a way of delaying a decision until after next June's county council elections.

Public consultation earlier this year showed nearly half of respondents opposed to congestion charging on a do-nothing scenario, but 60 per cent supporting it if the quality and availability of public transport were improved.

Sir Brian will work closely with respected economist Tony Travers, from the London School of Economics, who will act as technical adviser to the commission.

"Early in the new year we shall issue a call for evidence identifying some of the issues we want advice about," Sir Brian said. "All that will be on a public website. We shall then hold a series of public hearings, some of them probably in the evening so people can get there.

"We will examine the evidence and challenge it. Then we shall try to reach conclusions."

The plan is for the commission to report in the summer - by which time the elections will be safely out of the way for another four years - first to cabinet, then to the full county council next autumn. That will determine whether Cambridgeshire stands to gain or lose the cash.

"One of our ambitions is to use the next six-to-seven months to reach a position where more people understand more about the problem.

"It's not about focusing on the motorist and charging. It's about enabling people to do the things [journeys] they need to do," Sir Brian added.

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