Ministers are clearly worried that people in Greater Manchester are going to reject the proposal to have congestion charging in exchange for a massive investment programme. Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, set out clearly in The Times today that a no vote will cut off all the proposed funding. That is clearly a sign of panic but it is not, as opponents have claimed, an attempt to blackmail the electorate into accepting congestion charging.
Indeed, The Times headline suggesting that Hoon is bullying people into supporting the scheme is pure hogwash. The electorate is being offered something quite clear, a rather low congestion charge involving at worst a few quid a day – far less than say the price of petrol might vary over the next couple of years- in exchange for major public transport improvements. To me it seems as no-brainer but car addiction seems to induce a lack of rational logic among vast swathes of the population, including some MPs like Graham Stringer, a former leader of Manchester council, who has set his face dead against the scheme.
Why shouldn’t people be prepared to pay a bit for a scarce resource, road space at peak times, in exchange for improvements that will get encourage many people out of their cars – thus freeing up more road space for them. Of course, as opponents argue, not everyone will benefit from the scheme and the public transport improvements will be some time coming, but surely a continuation of the status quo is not a happy outcome. I bet there’s a few people in Edinburgh who today regret the No vote there.
For the government, the stakes are high. If Manchester votes No, then that will put paid to any hopes of introducing road charging across the country or even in a few key areas. The recession will give a bit of breathing space on transport growth, but once it restarts its relentless rise, ministers will be left with little in their armoury. But it may well be the other lot in power by then, who, from what we have seen of Boris’s transport policy in London so far, have even less idea of what to do.