Cambridge is contemplating the introduction of a congestion charge as part of a plan to alleviate traffic. In November, residents held a protest against the charge, which was followed in December by a pro-charge demonstration.
The issue is contentious for local residents. Debate around congestion and low-emission zones, as well as ‘15-minute cities’ initiatives, has sparked unexpectedly strong opposition. It comes not just from local residents, but from a coalition of right-wing climate deniers and the anti-vaxx movement whose leaders include Piers Corbyn. As cities announce these initiatives, the coalition flags them to its followers from around the country. As a result, some demonstrators travel quite a distance to protest.
Last week, Cambridge saw another anti-charge rally. I went along to interview people taking part.
Demonstrator Jo Barlow explained:
“I walk, I own a bike, I get the bus if I need something in Cambridge city centre or the station or places like that. And then I use a car if I’m doing a big weekly shop, or I’m needing to transfer my elderly father around. I was at the November demo – nothing’s happened since then and it’s a problem. We’re in limbo waiting for the results of the consultation. I’m here today to remind those people that are currently analysing our results. They will not get the full results of the consultation of every single word I say. They see it by my being here today. I want better buses. I want carbon reduction and climate control. There’s got to be something better out there!”
About a dozen speakers addressed the rally from the platform. Rehab teacher Sabrina Marenghi spoke of the likely effects of the congestion charge on people attending her classes, and therefore on the classes themselves.
Long-time Labour member Clare King spoke of the burden that the charge would lay on part-time workers. She’d heard it was not designed to be punitive, and reckoned that such a statement from charge apologists was an admission of a lost argument.
Kevin Roberts of the GMB union said he wanted to see a proper consultation for a better, fairer way of funding a greener Cambridge.
Arriving from Leeds
My second interviewee had travelled from Leeds to protest the proposed Cambridge charge zone.
“I like to walk, I like to cycle; like normal people I take a car most places. If I could take a train, and it was cheap, I would do. Two of us have come down here today from Leeds. It was going to cost us £107 per person to get here by the train. I wasn’t here for the demo in November. I was at the one at Oxford last week. I don’t specifically know an awful lot about Cambridge. But I do think it is all part of a larger plan. We’re here today from Leeds because if we don’t fight this here, and know it will affect all of our cities at some stage, right. I’ll have congestion charges where I live. The people of this country have had enough. Enough is enough. We are not prepared to put up with the tyranny of the elite over the common man anymore.”
On the fringe
Piers Corbyn was there, with a portable, much sloganed amplifier, and addressed a small fringe meeting after the main rally had largely dispersed. His meeting seemed to have shrunk by the time I’d done my interviews.
Awareness is growing
My third interviewee was Cambridge resident Mr Langley.
“We use both a car and the park and ride. The single biggest developments since the demo in December is possibly the number of people who are now aware of the suggested charge. And the larger number that were here today. There are a lot of misleading ‘mistruths’. I’ll call them ‘mistruths’ and not deliberate lies about what the charge is all about. And as for the facts and figures, someone in the system has taken incorrect information about the average increase in population in Cambridge.”
Paying for improved public transport
The speeches from the platform focused overwhelmingly on the specifics of the local issue. It was all about the need for improved public transport and the best way of paying for it. Placards included one bearing the words “Cyclists against con charge.” This wasn’t a place for conspiracy theories.
But the amplifier covered in slogans was there on the fringe. And some people had followed the protests from city to city. As this article goes online, news is coming in of rowdy meeting in Thetford where they are contemplating creating a “20-minute neighbourhood”.
To the fringe, the idea of a congestion charge is another weapon of tyranny. To others it has the potential to liberate cities and towns. Time will tell who is right.