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.