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?