I picked up the Cambridge News today to see that Richard Normington, Cambridge's parliamentary spokesman for the Conservatives, speaking on a local issue which may be replayed widely over Great Britain and spread to other countries like the US. He's claimed that an investigation into whether Cambridge should have a congestion charge (like London) will be a "stitch-up", on the grounds that the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission's chairman, Sir Brian Briscoe, had previously come down in favour of a congestion charge for Reading, a town to the west of London.
Part of Richard's statement, reported in the News, was:
Sir Brian has a credibility problem. As part of a transport commission looking into the future of Reading, he proposed introducing a congestion charge and signing up to the Government's Transport Innovation Fund - which makes charging compulsory for local authorities. His previous support for Labour's flagship policy puts his neutrality on the subject into question...now, more than ever, is not the time to impose greater financial burdens on Cambridge businesses and residents.Sir Brian has responded that what he suggested was "a package of measures...with the possibility of a congestion charge in the long term". However, what the Independent Transport Commission Report for Reading Borough Council, co-authored by him, says is,
We think the Council should, with its sub-regional neighbours, urgently examine the case for managing demand by road pricing to influence driver behaviour...We are satisfied that the technical means exist to introduce more sophisticated charging regimes and we recommend that the Council examine how it might devise a scheme with the object of maximising economic use of road space [italics and bold in the original]Another member of Reading's Transport Commission, Professor Tony Travers, published an essay in 2004 in the left-wing New Statesman in which he breathlessly and rather embarrassingly pours praise on the then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone (known as "Red Ken") for putting Congestion Charging in place.
I don't know whether Travers still believes in socialism or not - obviously people change and we have to allow them to. But the fact remains that transport charging is highly politicised, as it is in effect a form of taxation on a group of people - drivers - who are already taxed up to the hilt with road tax and duty on petrol. For example, back in Reading, prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate Alok Sharma has been accused of "lying" by opining that town dwellers would have to pay the charge (this has always been on the table in Cambridge); and the present Mayor of London, Boris Johnston, has been accused of "turning his back on carbon emission reductions and turning 'petrol blue'" (blue being the colour of the Conservative Party in the UK) by announcing that he would scrap an extension to the capital's Congestion Charge.
But to be tough on congestion requires us to be tough on the causes of congestion. A study commissioned by Cambridgeshire County Council states that 56,000 new dwellings will be required in this largely rural county by 2016. We just don't have the roads to support this, no more than the market towns and villages who are being pressured to accept new housing have the facilities and infrastructure. Not to mention that most rural areas are rural for a reason - the fens are very low-lying, and floods are common.
Travers makes a very interesting point in his essay: "no other city in Britain has anything like London's extensive public transport system. Less than 15 per cent of people working in central London commute by car. The political and economic risk would be far greater in a city where 65 or 75 per cent of workers travel by car." Stagecoach, which has a virtual monopoly on providing buses in and around Cambridge, must be congratulated for bringing in more and better stock. But to drive them they're hiring a lot of drivers for whom English is not a first language. If a prospective passenger doesn't speak good English either, it's a sight to behold.
If you live in or around Cambridge, please give your views online on this vital issue.
If you're from elsewhere, watch this space, because there's a very good chance that Congestion Charging and its ideological fellow-travellers are coming to a town near you soon.