In 1381, a mob sacked university buildings and burned books in the town square, shouting: “Away with the learning of clerks!” More recently, battle lines have been drawn over plans to build homes on green belt land and attempts to ban wild swimming in the river Cam.
Now, tensions between town and gown are rising again in Cambridge. This time, it’s over proposals to introduce a £5 congestion charge on weekday car journeys to the city, with a protest march to Parker’s Piece common planned for 27 November.
People who live in the city centre and mainly cycle or walk, such as students and Cambridge dons, stand to benefit greatly from the scheme. Others, such as workers and families who have to drive everyday, are facing charges of up to £1,300 a year per car.
Neil McArthur, vice-chair of Cambridgeshire Residents Group, a group recently set up to oppose the congestion charge, said the proposal was “driving a wedge between town and gown”. “The town is going to become a ghost town and residents are really concerned about that,” he said. “Whereas the student population and the Cambridge dons won’t suffer … They probably live and work within the city, they can walk or cycle wherever they want to go. The fewer cars in the city for them, the better.”
Car drivers – including those who live within the boundary of the proposed zone, which stretches about three miles from the city centre – will have to pay £5 when travelling into, out of or within Cambridge between 7am and 7pm on weekdays, although discounts are proposed for low-income households and blue badge holders.
The body behind the proposal, the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) – made up of local councils, the university and business representatives – hopes the charge will fund “significant” improvements to local bus services and cycling lanes, increasing bike journeys by up to 60,000 a day.
It believes the measures would reduce congestion and air pollution. Public health data found that, in 2020 alone, 48 deaths in Cambridge could be attributed to particulate air pollution.
“We know we’ve got an air-quality problem in the centre of the city, and that transport is a major contributor to local carbon emissions,” said Peter Blake, GCP transport director.
If all the public transport, cycling and walking improvements in the GCP proposal were implemented, along with the congestion charge, it would reduce traffic in Cambridge by 50%, he said.
Bus journeys into and around the city would also become much cheaper, more reliable and frequent, Blake said. “In general terms, we know that, if you’re on a lower income, you can’t afford to live in Cambridge,” he said. The proposals would bring bus fares in the city down to £1 per journey. “At the moment, some bus services are very expensive – and 30% of the poorest households in our area don’t have access to a car.”
GCP chief executive Rachel Stopard said: “Cambridge is one of the most unequal cities and what we’re trying to do is make it a more equal city.”
But McArthur is furious that the university, a non-voting statutory partner of the GCP, sits on the executive board that made the proposals – while residents’ groups such as his own do not. “It’s clearly the gown driving the town, not the other way round. It [the university] has so much impact on what is proposed and agreed, irrespective of the needs of the residents.”
A Cambridge University spokesperson said: “The university understands the need for bold action to ensure that traffic is managed more effectively in our city region, which has among the worst congestion in the UK.”
He said the university was still considering the detail of the proposals, but it was incorrect to suggest the congestion charge would not affect its staff, because nearly 70% of its workforce live outside the city and need to travel to work daily.
A study last year found the cost of a home in Cambridge is almost 12 times the average local salary, making it one of the least affordable places to live in the UK.
While the city is still home to most university students and many well-off Cambridge dons, the lowest-paid workers at many Cambridge colleges earn less than the real living wage and some college supervisors are working for close to £5 an hour.
Introducing congestion charges can reduce urban car traffic by up to 33%, research by Sweden’s Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies shows, and has been widely hailed as a success in London, cutting journey times, accidents and vehicle emissions.
• This article was amended on 22 November 2022 to clarify that Cambridgeshire Residents Group has been set up to oppose the congestion charge, rather than being an existing group that has a position on the issue.