Anti-Manchester congestion charge campaign seems crazy

The struggles in Manchester over the congestion charge plan highlight the difficulties faced by politicians when trying to convince people of what is in their long term interest, when faced with emotional and misleading opposition. Simplistic narrow arguments about taxation and fleecing the motorist mean that taking rational long term policies that would undoubtedly be of benefit to wider society are impossible to implement

With £3bn of transport improvements on offer through the Transport Innovation Fund, it is remarkable that there is much debate at all. Of course a few drivers will pay a charge, initially £3 for a return journey into and out of town at the rush hours, but the vast majority of local people, as in London, will either never pay it or do so very occasionally, and yet benefit from new tram lines, faster bus services, refurbished stations, better cycling and walking facilities and much more.

It seems like transport nirvana. Therefore, on the face of it should be easy to win over the public to the scheme. Most of the money will come from central government which suggests that the businesses and residents of Greater Manchester opposed to the idea are looking a gift horse in the mouth. It is astonishing that Lord Peter Smith, the leader of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, suggested with pride that the opposition had, at least, been convinced that there was a need for improved transport facilities: ‘They’ve now accepted that the planned infrastructure investment is good’, he recently told Transport Times referring to the clumsily named Greater Manchester Momentum Group (GMMG) which has led the resistance to the scheme..

Surely, it would take a particularly primitive bunch of Neanderthal Jeremy Clarkson types to reject a package of such wide ranging improvements which will be envied by other large cities. Yet, no other conurbation, apart from the West Midlands, has put in bids for this money because it required a road tolling component and they have been scared off by the electoral impact, spotlighted in Edinburgh where a similar scheme was thrown out by a three to one vote in a 2005 referendum. The vote there was lost partly as a result of the mistrust of the politicians’ motives but also because people wanted to see public transport improvements before the charge was imposed, a logical impossibility since that was how they would be funded. In London, Ken Livingstone only got away with it because he had the power to implement it quickly without a similar consultation exercise and pushed it through despite the concerns of his advisors knowing that few people drive into central London anyway.

Today, in Manchester, too opponents seem to be winning out, thanks to a fiercely waged opposition campaign. Local polls suggest only just over half of local residents support the investment package and, a majority oppose it when it is linked to a congestion charge.

So what is exactly the basis of the opposition? The GMMG is a group of businesses, led by Peel Holdings, which owns the Trafford centre and is therefore anxious about the congestion charge reducing footfall even though the supporters of the scheme point out that it does not open till 10, half an hour after the proposed charge would no longer be levied. Their stated arguments, too, seem very narrowly based: ‘The congestion charge would unfairly penalise businesses and their employees as well as hindering investment in Greater Manchester.’ But why? It would be a small charge that would encourage more people to use public transport and research shows that they are more likely to spend money than motorists whizzing through in their car.

Even with the demonstrable improvement this will bring in the wake, the turkeys seem not to be able to vote for a Christmas-free world. The chord struck by the opposition is that something which previously was free is now going to be charged for but they have clearly not learnt the lesson of the commons in the Middle Ages. Once too many people allowed their sheep to graze on them, the pasture was ruined – yet, it took centuries before they were fenced in.

Similarly road congestion probably has to get to near gridlock before people realise that it is unsustainable. Moreover, politicians will have to put that view forcibly to the public, a message they may not want to hear. The fundamentals of transport economics and the problem of the Commons are not easy to sell to the public, but the politicians have to start to try. After all, as far as inner cities are concerned, the tide turned long ago. In the 1950s, there were no restrictions on entering town centres, no parking wardens and few restrictions on access. That was fine in an age when there were few cars, but soon congestion grew and towns started becoming gridlock. Ever more restrictive parking restrictions, policed by meters and wardens, became the norm and in a way the congestion charge is really only a continuation of that process. But with the support of an ever vociferous small group of motoring extremists, opportunist politicians are all too ready to go to into battle to oppose the idea. One difficulty is that parking controls and fines are seen by the public as a revenue raising measure – which partly they are – rather than, as they should be, a way of rationing a scarce resource.

That is the case with congestion charging, too. There is no reason why road space should be given free to whoever wants some. There is simply not enough to go around but opponents are able to use equity arguments, even though their logic is flawed. Rationing it is the right response for society generally and, ultimately for individuals. Sure, the price mechanism favours the rich but so far no alternative has been found to the market and there is no reason why road space should be any different from, say, season tickets at Arsenal or Rolex watches, in being allocated by the market. Moreover, contrary to the claims of some Tory opponents of congestion charging, it is largely a progressive measure since it tends to be the poorest who have no access to cars and therefore have to travel on buses which are slowed by those given free road space. It may be an imperfect way of allocating such a resource but it is better than the present system. But will the people of Manchester buy it?

  • Tony Keeling

    I think the main reason the people of Manchester will not vote for TIF is trust. Talk of tram extensions, “The Big Bang” have been circulated by GMPTE for years, but never happened. The people of Manchester just don’t trust that improvements will be made.

  • Kevin Steele

    Got to agree with Tony about the whole question of whether or not public transport improvements actually happen. Already the motoring lobby knows that only a small proportion of road tax revenue and fuel duty (not to mention all the money in fees collected by the DVLA) actually is re-invested in the road infrastructure never mind transport as a whole. It all boils down to whether things like congestion charges and road pricing are politically tolerable – at the moment I people just see it as another tax for which they will get no return.

  • Derek Louw

    I agree with you, Christian – it is a “no-brainer”. Significant amount of central government money for public transport in return for a modest “congestion charge”, which in the Manchester case, unlike London, amounts to a modest charge for passing the boundaries into and out of the central areas over limited time periods.

    Most central Manchester commuters use the commendably and existing widespread rail and bus routes, or the less widespread and appallingly overloaded Metrolink (in peak times).

    Some choose to drive into the city, perhaps to park in company owned “free” car parks, and will be caught by the payment. I wonder whether it would be unfair to speculate that the decision makers in Peel Holdings may be just those so affected, and that their opposition to the plan may have less to do with altruistic motives than their own short term (and small) financial hit.

    The deal, according to the GMPTE advertising, is that the transport is improved before the congestion charge is imposed. Of course, we don’t get to approve the charge on the basis that the transport system has actually been improved before the charge is introduced, we get to do that on the basis that it will be, at which point the “trust” issue outlined by Tony & Kevin above may become important.

    Most of those resident in Greater Manchester will benefit from the scheme, and few will pay the charge. Some of the few (and I am aware that there are some lower income people who prefer to drive, pay for car parking, and will be affected) are those that have the ability and money to mobilise public opinion, and would like to carry on driving their company supplied gas-guzzlers into the central city for free.

  • Nigel Sarbutts

    I would have hoped for a little more analysis of the claims about the benefits. To take one or two examples, the Manchester scheme promises 120 extra school buses, which would be spread across the 10 Greater Manchester boroughs, but each borough has more than 100 primary and secondary schools. The number of new rail seats which would be by TiF is a mere 2950 across all of Greater Manchester.
    These benefits, far from being a revolution or ambitious, are spread so thinly that they will do little to address the daily lives of some 440,000 workers who work inside the proposed congestion charge zone.
    The transport density simply won’t be there to make modal shift a reality, but according to AGMA’s own studies, about half of residents in Greater Manchester travel by car during the peak hours and two thirds of them will face a charge of some sort.
    Abundant evidence from other congestion schemes shows that drivers quite quickly adjust their household spending to accomodate a charge and car usage (which allegedly threatens Manchester’s growth prospects), after early falls, creeps back up again.
    In short, this plan offers the pain of cost and inconvenience but none of the economic or environmental gain on which ths flawed bid is built. Little wonder that the financial assumptions of the bid remain a secret and why the scheme faces cross party opposition from local MPs

  • francis Phillips

    I agree with the above comments: would there actually be transport improvements, or will this simply be an easy-money exercise.

    The problem is that buses are de-regulated, meaning that councils have no say in the running of buses services, and private companies run whatever services they like- regardless of other forms of transport- and charge whatever fares they like. Any move to re-regulate buses will have my full support, but the government seems to be blindly thinking that de-regulation has worked, despite overwhelming evidence otherwise. Currently the council has no real powers to improve buses, so re-regulation would be vital for this to work.

    Also, if the government are promising so much money for transport improvements, how come a few years ago they refused funding for extensions to the metrolink. Also, the altrincham and bury metrolink lines should not have been built as trams- they should have been built as an underground metro system: Most of the route is already fully segregated, tunnels should have been built underneath the center. Trams will never be as fast or attractive as metros, and nor do they have as much capicity.

  • Kevin Steele

    Francis – good point, but tunnelling underground costs a fortune. Just look at what Crossrail, and the Jubilee Line extension in London has cost. Up here in Glasgow there has been grand plans about expanding the Underground (like they’ve been saying for the last 112 years it has existed!) but at the end of the day it’s going to cost £2bn they reckon and there is no way Holyrood will ever part with the cash. Governments love playing around at the fringes rather than spending the big bucks to do the things that really make a difference.

    Fair enough, thanks to devolution we ARE getting some real big money improvements like the airport rail link and the reopening of the fourth line to Edinburgh – but it’s not all perfect either – we too suffer from the problems of the city streets clogged up by empty buses thanks to deregulation, and the local bus operator (First) just seems to have a fare increase every quarter. To make matters worse, our equivalent of your GMPTE had some of its powers taken away by the 2005 Railways Act, turning it in my opinion into a toothless quango whose only real major responsibility is running the Underground.

    On trams – they are great when they don’t have to fight on narrow streets with other road traffic for space – I am just back from a trip to Budapest in Hungary and the trams run on big wide boulevards where they have right of passage over cars – goes back to your point that in congested areas – going underground is the way to do it.

  • Nigel Sarbutts

    >>It seems like transport nirvana<<
    A spokesman for TiF admitted yesterday that steam trains from the fifties may be pressed into service as commuter trains as part of TiF.

    This news comes just days after it was claimed that Obama’s transport advisers were studying Manchester’s TiF bid as an example of forward thinking…..

  • Tony C

    If most of the residents in Greater Manchester will benefit from the scheme, then it seems equitable that most of the residents should pay for it, not just motorists. The proponents and opponents of the scheme need to decouple the two themes – funding for the scheme and the alleged congestion problem. I see no problem in applying a levy on all the residents of Manchester to part fund an investment in transport within their ability to pay. A bus/train commuter, cyclist or taxi driver may have as much disposable income as a motorist and will receive proportionately more benefits from the improvements. My argument is simple – tax everyone as it is in everyone’s long term interest or don’t bother with the unfair TIF bid at all.

    As an aside, fringe arguments such as those concerning pollution and environmental benefits of a congestion charge can be false and misleading. One of the areas of poorest air quality in the whole country just so happens to be the bus station in Piccadilly gardens due to emissions from public transport! Adding more buses and trams is not to going to make that any better.

  • ian

    Trust, of course, is the central issue. People are wary of politics and politicians for good reason. In terms of this scheme (scam?) what they are faced with is a gigantic new source of tax revenue cascading into the eager hands of another generation of politicos…..and what a source! The idea that the Greater Manchester plan represents ‘modesty’ is laughable. Once this road pricing/congestion charge door is open there will be no stopping politicians travelling through the usual sorry path of charging extensions, technology creep and ever more strident attempts for revenue grabs and collection regimes.

    It truly represents a massive extension of state power with the Manchester transport planners already earmarking the use of satellite tracking. At the moment millions of ordinary people/motorists go about their lawful business thanks to the taxes they have paid. After this politicians will be having the following conversation with their electorate…….”Of course you live in a free society, you can drive anywhere you want…..Oh but by the way, we now have power to know where you’re going. Of course you can drive down that road, but we may charge you 10,15,20, 50 pounds.” Thanks, but No Thanks.

  • Duncan McHutcheon

    The Yes camp have too many arguements against the proposals that are not being addressed for the scheme to be acceptable to the people of Greater Manchester..

    The sceme does not address congestion, It will force some onto public transport where some fares have risen over 74% above inflation in resent years. It will hardly discourage someone willing to pay £9 a day to park their car by charging a quid to get to the car park..

    The scheme was badly thought out, It is biased, in that £1.2bn is to be spent on the most expensive transport system Trams , whilst the train and the 100 rail stations in Greater Manchester have £149 million spent between them. An area that has close to 140,000 people (Stockport) gets ONE extra Yellow School Bus.

    Back to the drawing board – address each area’s problems – a piecemeal solution will not work.

  • There would appear to be plenty of people on 30k + pa willing to support the congestion charge but what about the majority who can hardly make ends meet at present. The congestion charge is a piece of dangerous social engineering, typical of the wealthy Eco-fascists who support such schemes, clear the poor from the roads so we can save time going to work in the Jag or 4 by 4. The whole idea is totally un-British and combines all the worst human rights culture aspects of Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany.

  • John Edwards

    To Gordon Pye: a road-charging scheme is simply a recognition that there is a limit to the number of cars which a single city on a relatively small island can accommodate, without mentioning the environmental consequences of thousands of single-occupant cars moving to and fro over short distances. What is so un-British about preventing cities becoming a jungle of roads and car parks to suit the needs of the individual (selfish) car-user? Why should their voice count over everyone else, and why should everyone be presumed to be a car-user? It is not the ideas espoused by TIF which are fascist, but rather your own views which you seek to impose on others. If you can afford to run a car, then you certainly can afford the daily commute. Welcome to the 21st century.

  • Dave Winter

    Poorly thought out scheme, £3bn has changed to ‘up to’ £3bn, if the charge doesn’t bring in enough cash guess what, we’re being bullied into it by the likes of Richard Leese and Geoff (Buff) Hoon, GMPTE have an appalling record, they are political appointees not transport experts – as one person succinctly put it ‘GMPTE couldn’t run a bath’.

    You have to understand Christian that Manchester City Council is the epitome of New Labour ‘spin’.

    No, we don’t trust them to deliver.

  • Kevin Steele

    Picking up on the points that Gordon Pye and John Edwards made – you will never keep a percentage of motorists off the road who will want to drive no matter what the cost and whether you believe are selfish or not – will not be swayed and believe it is their right to drive regardless what taxes are imposed. The fact that traffic levels weren’t really all that badly affected by the huge spike in fuel prices in the spring is evidence of this. I certainly didn’t feel there were less cars on the road.

    Good examples – the man Christian loves to hate – Michael O’Leary – has taken this to an extreme and had his Mercedes registered as a taxi so he can use Dublin’s bus and taxi lanes. In Glasgow there was a case of a millionaire businessman – a persistent parking offender in the city centre – who bought a huge American pickup truck that was beyond the capability of the council’s crane lorry so they couldn’t tow it away.

    It isn’t easy to get people out of their cars!!