Road-charging plan for whole of Cambridgeshire

A CAMBRIDGESHIRE county councillor has raised the prospect of drivers having to pay to use every non-trunk road in the county.

Charges under the scheme – which has little chance of being implemented but will rekindle an earlier debate about congestion charging in the county – would vary by type of road, time of day, type of vehicle and emission levels and whether the journey could have been made by public transport.

Under the plan put forward by former Liberal Democrat Councillor Nichola Harrison, who left the party last year to sit as an Independent, residents’ road use would be measured either by some form of geo-positioning satellite monitoring or roadside number-plate recognition cameras across the county.

But Cllr Harrison concedes that she has not costed the capital cost of installing the GPS equipment or cameras and that the computer algorithm for her mooted charging regime did not exist.

As she points out, it should not be beyond the computer brains of Cambridge Science Park to devise the algorithm, but paying for the capital cost could be one of the fatal flaws.

Another could be residents’ reluctance to pay more for personal transport at a time of rapidly-escalating fuel process.

The last attempt to introduce road-pricing came to naught last year when a �500million county council bid to Government for major transport improvements, which included a charge of using city streets in Cambridge in the morning peak, fell at the hurdle of Whitehall spending cuts.

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Although some residents – and half the ruling Tories on the county council – were bitterly opposed to the very concept of congestion charging- nearly 60 per cent in a wide public consultation – and including the other half of the ruling Tories – were prepared to back the scheme if it delivered significant road, cycling and public transport improvements.

But, unlike Cllr Harrison’s scheme, the roadside camera equipment that would have been used to monitor the charging zone was costed. Even the few cameras earmarked for the city would have cost �18.4m. To extend such equipment to provide meaningful coverage of the whole of the county’s non-trunk roads would cost several hundred million pounds.

Then there is the prospect of installing GPS-driven electronic billing devices in the county’s 300,000 road vehicles. The idea of businesses operating on the back of the scheme – such as companies offering mileage-based insurance cover – paying the capital cost of the equipment, as Cllr Harrison envisages, seems improbable in the current economic climate.

Many drivers would pay less than �3 a week, 95 per cent less than �10 and no one more than �20, she told The Hunts Post.

The whole of the estimated �120m-a-year proceeds from the scheme would be spent on transport subsidy and support, road maintenance, infrastructure projects and disabled access, apart from around �20m needed for leasing the equipment, she said.

But she admitted that the plan was not robustly costed. “I’m putting my own resources into this. It’s my personal investment in the future of Cambridgeshire, but there’s a limit to what I can afford.

“If you have a really well designed scheme, the benefits will be enormous. It would be a very modest amount to pay for some fantastic local transport.”

Senior councillors would not dismiss the idea out of hand, and were anxious to discuss the proposal with Cllr Harrison.

Deputy leader Cllr Mac McGuire said he did not want to pre-empt the discussion, but was doubtful that Cambridgeshire residents would take to drastic road-charging proposals in the current economic climate.

And Cllr Roy Pegram, who is responsible for strategic infrastructure, added: “We will look at the details and, crucially, listen to what our communities say. But one thing I do support is that we should look at alternative ways of funding infrastructure, including the road system, including European money, partnership working and so on.”