Local residents, and some protesters from around the country, marched through the city centre to a rally on Parker's PieceMichael Hennessey

Cambridge residents, students and politicians, as well as some outside groups, continue to be fiercely divided over the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s (GCP) proposal to introduce a £5 per-day congestion charge for driving in and around Cambridge, after a large march and rally on Sunday (26/02) that involved a number of anti-vaccination protesters and climate change sceptics.

Protesters took part in three different marches, converging for a rally on Parker’s Piece. Varsity spoke to local residents at the rally, who were particularly concerned about the potential injustice of the scheme and the University’s role in supporting the congestion charge.

Although local residents were united on the unfairness of the proposed charge, a vocal minority of anti-vaccination and climate change sceptic protesters also descended on Parker’s Piece to a mixed level of support. As reported by Varsity, Piers Corbyn, an anti-vaccine activist and brother of Jeremy Corbyn, was attending the event.

Corbyn told Varsity that he opposes the congestion charge as he believes it would make Cambridge a “fifteen minute city” and he sees the scheme as part of the “long-term plan of the World Economic Forum to end all car ownership”. The concept of “fifteen minute cities” has become part of a wider conspiracy theory about “efforts to remake the world as it emerges out of the pandemic”.

A leaflet that Corbyn and his supporters were handing out at the protest made various claims, including that “climate change does not exist”, “the coronavirus was a lie” and that “5G towers are data expressways to control you”. Corbyn’s leaflets also described the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “war con” and called on his supporters to “respect the democratic self-determination of parts of Ukraine”. This claim echoes the attempts of Russian propaganda to justify the invasion.

Another member of an anti-vaccination group said that he had travelled to the protest from Essex in order to “oppose fifteen minute cities”. The man claimed that the congestion charge proposals were part of a plan for a “climate change lockdown” and that “climate change doesn’t exist anyway”. Like Corbyn, this protester also claimed the COVID-19 vaccine was an “experimental poisonous gene therapy” created to kill people by “changing their DNA”.

The man said he had travelled to the protest from Colchester as part of a larger group, having travelled on a coach to Oxford with fifty others for a protest on “fifteen minute cities” the previous weekend.

After the announcement that Corbyn would be attending the protest with fellow anti-vaccination campaigners, three Conservative politicians pulled out of the rally due to a “security warning”. Corbyn told Varsity that this was a “nonsense story” that was “made to divide people”.

Some local residents welcomed the presence of Corbyn and his supporters at the protest, as one resident told Varsity that Corbyn’s views were “not an issue” because “they’re genuine people”. Another local resident made a similar point, arguing that the presence of protesters from outside Cambridge, including anti-vaxxers, was only representative of the fact that “people all over the country are concerned”.

However, some local residents were unhappy with Corbyn’s presence and told Varsity that they “haven’t got our best interests at heart”, while another protester said that it was unfortunate that protests can attract people “who have a different motive”.

Leaflets were also distributed at the protest responding to Corbyn’s claims. One leaflet urged residents to “keep the far-right out of Cambridge” and “fight for local democracy”. The leaflet said that “far right groups” were trying to “co-opt and infiltrate a peaceful democratic demonstration”. The flyer said Cambridge residents should not allow these groups “to hijack this movement and turn it into one of hatred”.

Archie McCann, a Cambridge student, attended the rally in a counter-protest with a sign that said “Piers Corbyn is a nitwit”. McCann was confronted by Corbyn’s supporters who told him that he was “brainwashed”. The police told McCann to take down or change the sign because he may have been causing “harassment, alarm or distress”. McCann says that the police have subsequently apologised.

One local told Varsity that “the University should stand up for Cambridge residents” because residents “already put up with a lot having the University here”. Another protester said the University should stop the congestion charge “because they’ve got a lot of control” and the charge will “kill the city and people won’t bother coming”.

In a statement last month, the University confirmed that it supported the planned measures, on the grounds that it would help to “deliver against their climate ambitions” to produce “an integrated transport solution” to the “biodiversity crisis and social inequalities that the region faces”.

A resident, whose daughter works at the University, said the University spokesperson does not represent people who live in Cambridge and work for the University.

As well as expressing their anger at the University, most residents at the protest believed that the proposed charge would be unfair, because “things are hard enough as they are” and the scheme is an example of “gross unfairness”.

Sunday’s protest was the largest gathering in opposition to the congestion charge so far. Local residents, including one member of University staff, told Varsity that “voters feel they haven’t been given a proper democratic choice on the matter” and as a result “feel increasingly disenfranchised”.

The University staff member said Cambridge residents are angry because they “have no say at all over the university and business representatives who sit on the executive board” of the GCP.

Neil McArthur, vice-chair of one of the groups responsible for organising the protest, the Cambridgeshire Residents Group, has previously told The Guardian: “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.”

Cambridge student and Labour councillor Sam Carling told Varsity: “The City Access proposals have the potential to bring a lot of benefit to students - reducing traffic in the city centre, making cycling safer and providing better buses has potential to seriously boost students’ experiences, especially in less central colleges.”


Mountain View

Cam congestion charge protest ‘co-opted’ by anti-vax group

Cllr Carling continued: “There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the proposals, some of which has arisen from the GCP not always getting the comms right, but I do think the hijacking of the protests against the charge by right-wing groups with their own agendas, including the local Conservatives, is contributing a lot to that”.

Carling concluded: “What we as local politicians are doing right now is listening to residents, and pushing for changes in the proposals to address as many concerns as possible. For example, I want to explore the option of giving residents a number of ‘free days’ to use each year where the charge would only apply to days of car use above that number. In the end, I’m hopeful we can reform the proposals into something a majority of residents can get behind, as residents’ support will be crucial if the scheme does go ahead.”

The proposals would mean that on weekdays, drivers in the congestion charge zone, which stretches about three miles out from the city centre, would have to pay a toll of £5.

The proposed scheme also aims to improve the bus network through more services and cheaper fares, increase walking and cycling links and reduce air pollution and cut congestion.

A petition opposing the charge has been signed by over 14,000 people. The petition will be presented to the GCP later this month. The GCP will then make a recommendation to the council on whether to proceed with the proposals later in the year.