Manchester vote kills off road pricing

The strength of the vote against the congestion charge plan in Manchester effectively kills off the government’s strategy of trying to bribe local votes into accepting such schemes.

 This one had everything going for it: a bribe of billions of pounds of transport improvements, a strong campaign and a relatively cheap charge, amounting to less than the extra motorists might pay if the price of petrol returns to this summer levels.

 Yet the vote against was resounding. It was a missed opportunity for several reasons. First, the hardware the city was being offered, such as new tram lines and faster buses, would have benefitted most people, even probably a majority of those who voted against. Secondly, as the London congestion charge has shown, there would have been a reduction of congestion and a far more pleasant environment in the city centre. But thirdly, and possibly most important, Manchester would have looked modern and forward-looking by adopting a Green agenda. Like London it would have attracted visitors from across the world impressed by its readiness to face the problems caused by congestion that affect every city in the world.

 The defeat puts paid to any further attempts to allow people to vote on such schemes. The lesson is that voters cannot be expected to support schemes to tax them more, however logical and worthy the idea. The only place where congestion charge has been passed by referendum is in Stockholm where the vote took place after a successful trial period. In London, the charge proved hugely popular after it was implemented without a vote while in Edinburgh the vote was heavily against.  

 Transport ministers are now left with faces full of egg. Geoff Hoon’s predecessors talked up the idea of a nationwide congestion charge, but then chickened out following a misleading petition on the No 10 website which attracted over 1.5 million signatories. Anti congestion charge campaigns can all too easily run on the basis of scare stories which are difficult for their supports to counter.

 Ministers will now have to go back to the drawing board to work out ways of spending the huge Transport Innovation Fund budget, much of which would have gone to Manchester. They should resist the temptation of just spending it on futile roads schemes. Meanwhile, in the rainy city, it will be interesting to see how many people have cause to regret their vote when they find themselves stuck in every bigger traffic jams over the next few years with no solution in sight.


  • Peter A. Johnson

    Christian, I agree with everything you said in your article. It was no surprise to me that the referendum had the result that it did, did Government really expect car drivers to vote for a congestion charge, perhaps the result was what central government was wanted so that they can now say “No-one wants better public transport – lets spend money on roads”. One gets sick of hearing hypocrites say “People won’t leave their cars until there is better public transport” when they have no intention of using public transport. It is perhaps true that people get the transport system they deserve and Manchester deserves nothing better than what they already have but hopefully means will be found to bring the promised improvements notwithstanding the outcome of the vote.


    Peter Johnson (non car-owning regular user of rail both local and long distance).

    PS What are you doing with a Drivers’ Alliance invitation on your site?

  • Isabel White

    The thing i don’t get is, the government is about to create a new city region around Greater Manchester, with greater control over a number of budgets including transport. What is to stop them using this cash to build their tramlines when the time comes?

  • Paul Holt

    So the turkeys haven’t voted for Christmas. Given it was the “tax-now-for-possible-benefits-somewhen” pitch so beloved by current politicians, is anyone really surprised? Given the expansion of Manchester Metrolink has been stalled for many years, why is that not begun and done anyway paid for by the huge Transport Innovation Fund budget? People will soon use viable alternatives to cars once they exist, it’s that simple.

  • Mike

    “The lesson is that voters cannot be expected to support schemes to tax them more, however logical and worthy the idea.” This is a dangerous and presumptive argument.

    The fact is that to motorists of Manchester the idea simply isn’t logical or worthy enough. To benefit from the proposed expansion you’d have to both live and work close enough to the network to be able to use it, and for the vast majority of the people being asked to pay for it, this just isn’t the case. The rejection of this unfair and impractical scheme was wholly democratic and justified, yet you imply that not being prepared to pay for something of no benefit is somehow worse than expecting others to pay for you. Kettles and pots perhaps.

  • Paul Holt

    Since CW wrote this article, Manchester Metrolink have opened the Rochdale (via Oldham), East Didsbury and Droylsden branches. I travelled on the Rochdale branch a week ago and noted further extensions under construction. All done without congestion charging.