The Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) arranged a Citizens’ Assembly, comprising some 60 representative members of the community, that met over two weekends to consider transport options that would reduce congestion, improve air quality and provide better public transport. The Assembly heard evidence on these issues from experts, both independent and staff of the GCP. I was present throughout as an expert advisor. There was extensive discussion by small groups at tables, effectively facilitated by staff of Involve, a charity established to promote public participation in decisions. The GCP was at pains to avoid steering Assembly members to a preferred conclusion, which was achieved, in my judgement.
The context is that the GCP agreed a City Deal with the Coalition Government worth £500m over 15 years, aimed at tackling the transport requirements of a growing city. Cambridge has an historic city centre that constraints both property development and transport provision, so that new businesses, many spun out of university research, are located around the periphery. Travel across the city between homes and employment is impeded by the narrow street network. Cambridge has an effective dedicated north-south busway along a previous rail route, and further such routes are planned. But the problem of the congested centre remains.
The second weekend of the Assembly focused on practical measures, leading to voting on preferred options, the results of which have been published. There was strong support for closing roads to cars, to allow faster and more reliable buses and to encourage walking and cycling, as well as to reduce air pollution. There was also good support for road user charging, to raise funds to invest in public transport and active travel. There was less support for measures to limit or charge for parking, and relatively little preference for no interventions.
The Assembly also voted on a wide range of supporting measures. The most popular was to put in place a franchised bus service under the Mayor, like that operated in London, in place of the present privately operated buses.
The conclusions of the Assembly were a sensible response to the travel problems experienced in Cambridge and the surrounding area – a policy package comprising revenue generated from motorists to support investment in public transport and active travel, plus more road space for these purposes. The GCP is likley to find it difficult to reject this outcome, not least because the funding from the Government comes in tranches that have to be justified by showing progress towards tackling the problems for which the funding was promised.
More generally, this experience indicates that a Citizens’ Assembly may be a more effective means of carrying forward policy in problematic areas, particularly where conventional consultation exercises are likely to stimulate more negative responses from those who believe they would be adversely affected while those who may benefit tend to stay silent.