Phil Rodgers on politics: Congestion charge debate and elections in Cambridge and East Cambridgeshire will make for an intriguing 2023

By (Newsdesk Cambridge)

The Cambridge Independent’s new columnist, Phil Rodgers, take a look ahead to what 2023 might hold for politics in the local area.

Phil Rodgers is writing a monthly column for the Cambridge Independent. Picture: Keith Heppell

As well as the multiple overlapping crises at national and international level – fuel prices, the cost of living, strikes, NHS pressures, the war in Ukraine, and of course the climate, Cambridge has its own particular perma-crises to face – housing, growth and transport, the last of which is looming particularly large at the moment.

The year will also bring an intriguing set of elections for all seats on East Cambridgeshire District Council, the usual contest for a third of the city council, and also at least one by-election potentially affecting the delicate balance of power at the county council.

Mayor Nik Johnson is due to retake the reins of the troubled Combined Authority following his recent medical leave of absence, while the Greater Cambridge Partnership will be deciding on the next steps for its transport plans. As well as all this, the multiple levels of our complex layer-cake of local government will be struggling with budget pressures that are even more unprecedented than usual.

One issue dominated Cambridge politics in 2022, and looks set to continue doing so this year – the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s bus subsidy and congestion-charging plans. The consultation closed just before Christmas, and council officers have more than 23,000 responses to analyse before they present the results to the GCP board in June.

An anti-congestion charge protest on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge. Picture: David Johnson

The GCP will then decide whether to recommend the scheme to the county council, who will ultimately have to decide whether to back it or not. It is far from clear (to me at least) what is likely to happen, but there are essentially three possibilities – either the scheme goes ahead basically as proposed, or it will be significantly reduced in scope, or it will be abandoned altogether.

If you lined up the entire population of Greater Cambridge in order of how much they like the GCP’s transport plans, you would find some very passionate and committed voices at either end of the line. But what really matters politically is what the people in the middle think. We’ll see what the consultation shows, but my impression is that they really don’t like the plans very much at all.

Many people aren’t terribly interested in local politics a lot of the time, but if you propose to charge them £5 a day for driving around their own city, you will definitely get their attention, and that has political consequences. The plans had a significant effect on the Longstanton by-election in November, with the Conservatives campaigning strongly on the issue and overcoming a towering Lib Dem majority to snatch one of the two seats being contested.

The Yes to Better Buses rally in Cambridge on December 10, 2022, was held by supporters of a Sustainable Travel Zone. Picture: Jeremy Peters

The electoral effects won’t stop there, though they are likely to be more prominent in South and East Cambs than in the city itself – it’s hard to see the Conservatives making much headway on the city council even armed with this issue, and apart from Sam Davies the scheme’s other opponents don’t seem well-organised enough to make much of an electoral impact. But the outright splits in Cambridge Labour, the deafening silence about the issue on the Cambridge Lib Dem website, and the deeply unenthusiastic response from the city’s Green Party tell their own story – it’s hard to see where the political backing is coming from to get the plans through as they stand. The council officers are clearly very keen on them, but that on its own still isn’t quite enough.

Could the plans be abandoned entirely? I think it’s unlikely, but certainly not impossible. You often hear people say “the status quo is not an option” about some issue or other, but in truth the status quo is always an option, and furthermore it’s an option that’s easy to deliver.

Several previous attempts to introduce a Cambridge congestion charge have ended up in the Too Difficult box, and if the ruling coalition on the county council are faced with a choice between either abandoning the plans themselves or handing the council back, gift-wrapped, to the Conservatives, they are unlikely to choose the latter option.

Traffic congestion in Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham

The third possibility is a significantly reduced proposal which still establishes the principle of congestion charging. Perhaps the charging times might be reduced to peak hours only, or the boundaries of the scheme might contract to cover only the city centre, excluding the hospital, or there might be a discount for residents or some other solution for people driving out of the city, or some combination of all of these.

Indeed it’s been suggested that the scheme was deliberately set “high” to provide cover for delivering a more limited proposal, though I doubt this was really the case. Even a more limited scheme would still provoke a great deal of opposition, with many people perhaps not unreasonably suspecting that once in place, it would gradually be extended.

Elections in Cambridge

While we await the outcome of the GCP consultation, campaigning for May’s local elections will be getting under way. In Cambridge, as usual one-third of the city council’s seats will be contested. Here’s a graph showing the results last year, in terms of Labour’s majority over the other main contender in each seat:

Labour majority per ward at Cambridge City Council election 2022. Graph: Phil Rodgers

2022 was a very good year for Cambridge Labour. As well as their six safe seats, they also took four of the “battleground” seats where the Lib Dems had hopes, reducing the yellow team to just three fairly narrow victories in Queen Edith’s, Trumpington and Market. While the Greens gained Abbey, they only managed very distant second places in Coleridge and Romsey, and the Conservatives took just one even more distant second place, in Cherry Hinton.

This year will be slightly more challenging for Labour, but they are still set for a comfortable win. They will certainly hold Arbury, Cherry Hinton, Coleridge, King’s Hedges, Petersfield, and Romsey; they will have hopes of ousting Lib Dem Cheney Payne in Castle, but they will face defences against the Lib Dems in Market, Newnham, and both the Chestertons. The Greens face the relatively novel prospect of defending a seat in Abbey, but it’s difficult to see them taking seats in any other ward at this stage.

Labour’s overall control of the city council remains extremely solid, and it will take a significant political upheaval – such as a Labour government at Westminster – to change that.

What about East Cambridgeshire?

Things are rather more uncertain in East Cambridgeshire, where all the council seats are up for election. Here’s how things went last time, in 2019:

Councillors on East Cambs District Council. Graph: Phil Rodgers

Most wards in East Cambs have two seats, though a few have one or three. This graph is based on the highest vote for each party in each ward.

In 2019, the Lib Dems came quite close to winning control for the first time in 20 years, but in the end took 13 seats to 15 for the Conservatives. Of course, a great deal has changed since then – the 2019 contest took place in the febrile pre-Brexit atmosphere, which saw the Lib Dems take second place nationally in the European elections a few weeks afterwards.

While the Conservatives have recently been plummeting in the opinion polls, they aren’t currently all that far off where they were in May 2019, and at previous election they performed much more strongly. Here’s how the picture has changed over the years:

Conservative v Lib Dem vote share at 2019 East Cambs elections. Graph: Phil Rodgers

As you can see, the Independent control in the last century has given way to a party-based system now, and apart from a brief period of Lib Dem control in 1999, the Conservatives have been fairly dominant. The change in the total number of seats was due to boundary changes.

One new feature of this year’s local elections is that voters will have to produce ID in order to vote. It’s expected that this will slightly favour the Conservatives overall, but it’s unlikely to make any noticeable difference locally.

The battle for Westminster

While the local election timetable is already fixed, the date of the next General Election is once again up to the Prime Minister, following the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. While a 2023 General Election is extremely unlikely, the country will probably be going to the polls in the spring or autumn of next year.

Theoretically, the General Election could be as late as January 2025, but nobody wants an election campaign during the Christmas holidays. So we can expect to see the parties getting their Parliamentary candidates in place and starting to fire up the Parliamentary campaigning machinery.

Pippa Heylings will contest the South Cambridgeshire Parliamentary seat for the Liberal Democrats. Picture: Keith Heppell

In Cambridge, the Lib Dems have already selected Castle councillor Cheney Payne as their candidate for MP. I have seen no indication that Daniel Zeichner won’t stand again for Labour, though he would be 72 at the end of the next Parliament if it runs to 2029, so it’s possible he might decide that it’s time for a quieter life.

While Cambridge is pretty safe for Labour, South Cambs is set to be a closely-fought battle between incumbent Conservative Anthony Browne and Lib Dem Pippa Heylings. East Cambs is likely to be a bit safer for the Conservatives, and the new St Neots and Mid Cambridgeshire seat will probably be midway between the two.

South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP Anthony Browne will seek to fend off the Lib Dems at the next General Election. Picture: Keith Heppell

A busy year

There will certainly be plenty more happening in Cambridge politics as the year unfolds. In April we are likely to see further problems with bus services if central government subsidies are withdrawn; another developing theme is likely to be the post-pandemic transformation of the city’s retail sector, with big changes planned for The Grafton and Beehive centres.

The cost of living crisis and homelessness problems haven’t gone away, and Cambridge remains the UK’s most unequal city – though this is partly because nobody has updated the statistics on this since 2016. Continuing growth pressures will likely bring some controversial planning issues, and the year will probably have its share of unexpected events. As ever, there will be a lot going on.

Phil Rodgers has lived in Cambridge since 1984. Married with two daughters, he works as a developer for a city software firm. You can read more from him on his blog, and look out for his column each month in the Cambridge Independent.