Road pricing is dead


The overwhelming vote against a Manchester congestion charge shows that local democracy is not the best of determining complex issues. Sure, this was not the best scheme in the world and mistakes were made in the way that it was promoted, but overall it was better than the status quo. Frankly, most people had little to lose apart from their car addiction.

 Yet the 4 -1 vote against suggests that government attempts to pass on the risk of political fall out to local authorities over congestion charge schemes are now dead. It is simply too easy for opponents to muster arguments against any sort of extra taxation to make such referendums winnable. Any move towards road pricing would have to come from the centre and it is already clear that ministers simply do not have the bottle to initiate such a programme. Road pricing was once always ten years ahead, but it now seems light years away.

 The interesting question now is how will transport ministers react. They may simply retreat and decide to reallocated all the cash freed up by this decision to more roadbuilding. Or they could be cannier, and decide that could run a competition for a local authority to become a beacon area for sustainable transport and use the money on that. No vote needed!

 My guess though, from seeing Geoff Hoon’s early pronouncements, is that he will rub his hands in glee at the prospect of building more roads.



  • Dan

    Maybe they should start by building some more roads in Manc – but I’d look for a way to plan them in such a way as they blighted the homes of those who’ve voted against the public transport solution (sorry – I don’t mean blighted, I mean help them live more car conveneint lives – ie bigger, busier, noisier roads, right out side their front doors…)

  • Dominic

    If the offer of road pricing had come with a reduction in Council Tax then maybe there might have been a stronger Yes vote. Dan’s idea of building roads outside all the No voters properties is a good one. But I for one will still argue for better and more affordable public transport, more cycling provision and pedestrian friendly neighbourhoods!

  • Chris Sharp

    I’m quoting off the top of my head, but around 80% of all journeys are made by car. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a correlation between this figure and the 4 to 1 vote in Manchester.

    What surprised me was that anyone thought that this kind of proposal could get though a referendum.

    Congestion may be bad, but the vast majority of people will never give up their cars and they are too stupid to realise that they don’t have to – all they have to do is pay other people not to drive and then they will have the roads to themselves.

  • Dan

    Yes, maybe it will clear the way for referenda on other complex policy issues (eg defence spending maybe, perhaps crime and punishment, certainly MPs pay and Cllrs allowances).

    For govt to suggest this was a serious way of setting policy they really have to now make no investment in transport in Manchester – of any sort – presumably? I can’t see how, if you are sat in a traffic jam, this will please you – but may be it will.

  • Tony

    “I’m quoting off the top of my head, but around 80% of all journeys are made by car. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a correlation between this figure and the 4 to 1 vote in Manchester.” … Chris Sharp

    I’m telling you there isn’t as car ownership in Manchester is only around 35-40%. It was a ridiculous scheme (the £1.2 billion / 30 year loan and £300 – £900 million congestion charge setup costs) and that’s why it was voted out.

  • Richard Boyd

    After reference to this site and a lot of thought, I voted “yes” to the proposals but it wasn’t an easy decision and I suspect this lies at the heart of the scheme’s rejection. Being more specific, there were so many unknowns and uncertainties that a “yes” vote was a huge leap of faith which many were probably not prepared to make. For example, how the £1bn+ debt the councils were going to heap upon themselves was going to be repaid and whether the huge programme of public works to expand the Metrolink in time for charging could be completed in the space of four years. In addition, we had proposals to beef up the bus network which were never going to work because people just don’t like buses, very few proposals which involved the heavy rail network and a promise not to go ahead with the scheme until 80% of improvements were in place, meaning that 20% of commuters stood the chance of having no public transport alternative to the roads and thereby being compelled to pay charges, as distinct from choosing to. So quite honestly, the scheme was a dead duck.

    So where now? Well, Ministers could start by trying to turn back the clock and eradicating some of these bizarre habits we’ve got ourselves into in recent years, such as the school run. That should free up a bit of road space.

  • Derek L

    I am not at all sure that car ownership was necessarily a major factor in the result – although it is to be noted that the highest turnouts were in areas where car dependency is higher. I had the impression from the “vox pops” (and I I know they are questionable) that there was a general distrust that anything much would happen to public transport, and we would all pay more for no result.

    Cannot have helped either that in the last couple of weeks Metrolink’s performance has been pretty abysmal, affected by tram breakdowns disrupting services and recently, ice on the OHLE causing problems (since when has that been a major problem, I wondered, while standing in a freezing cold wind waiting for a non-existent tram, with a few hundred others).

    I think it was simply a matter of distrust, helped by the general anti whipping up from the car lobby, which, incidentally, is not the £19,000 a year motorist faced with the possibility of the charge taking a large slice of income, but a lot of the better off (like £50,000+) who prefer to drive into the city, and didn’t like the idea of having to cough up.

  • Chris Sharp


    Car ownership nationally is less than 50% – the figure is massively skewed by the under 17’s who don’t own a car but still make most of their journeys in one.

    The under 18s wouldn’t have got a vote in this referendum even though 14 to 17 years are big users of public transport, cycling and walking and tend to be more green in their outlook.

  • James Strachan

    It’s pretty simple, really.

    Manchester residents know that they make many journeys across the City whilst public transport would only be improved on the routes to the centre of the City.

    And they must have suspected that, once the technology was in place, the hours for charging would be extended and the charge raised – same same, London.

    That’s certainly the message that we got in Cambridge where a similar scheme has been proposed with NO referendum.

  • Tom

    Surely the lesson from London is that making a deal involving congestion charging plus public transport investment works, doesn’t kill the city, doesn’t stop people moving around and generally makes things pleasanter for everyone?

    Of course, I presume Boris wasn’t invited up to Manchester to explain all this.

    The final point is that since we Londoners are the only people in England who accept sensible plans for public transport improvements, can we have the £3bn, please? We can definitely find a use for that, and all the northerners who whinge about the South East getting all the investment can be shown the referendum results and invited to shut up.

  • Tony

    Tom …

    London gets about £2.5 billion per year from the government, and the congestion charge only contributes £120million net. London doesn’t need any more money. The rest of the country does.

    The benefits of the Manchester TIF have been greatly exaggerated in the press. The congestion problem is not as bad as claimed, and the majority of the improvements claimed by the TIF were already programmed and funded. So £1.5 billion over 5 years for a few more buses and tram carriages, plus a £1.2 billion loan to be repaid over 30 years and £300 – 900 million to set up a congestion scheme was viewed as a very poor deal and thus rejected.

    I would like to invite Boris to Manchester to explain why he is scrapping the London western zone congestion scheme and scrapping the increased levy of £25 for higher CO2 rated vehicles.

  • Chris Packham

    Several lessons from Manchester:
    1. Public transport and environmental campaigners must get much smarter at showing the full costs of car ownership and the impact this has on low-average income households. Better public transport could surely help many 2 car households manage with 1, with significant savings compared to metropolitan season ticket prices. The recent CfIT report on rural transport makes this point perceptively: rural car ownership is much higher than in cities because poor public transport forces people to reluctantly own cars (an interesting parallel with the car lobby’s obsession with the idea that drivers are being ‘forced out of their cars’). The No campaign in Manchester stuck to the theme that people would suffer financially. The Yes campaign should have shown how better public transport would provide more choice about how people spend money on travel.

    2. Political unity is vital. AGMA struggled to hold together a fragile coalition for TIF. Local politicians of all parties objected to the charging plan (remember that next time you hear the national leaders of these parties say how pro-environment they are). It was depressing to see politicians in areas which have Metrolink (Trafford and Bury) help deny other areas getting Metrolink anytime soon.

    3. Local authorities need more autonomy to raise their own finance for transport improvements and not depend on machiavellian central government wheezes which string them along through endless hoops and policy changes.

  • James Burnside

    It’s no surprise to see a no vote, after Edinburgh’s experience a couple of years back. Few people are going to vote against an immediate, measurable hit in the pocket when the alternative is difficult to visualise, relatively far off, and, for the car driver, perceived as less convenient. Across the world, even in countries with, by British standards, very good quality public transport systems, a substantial proportion of people still prefer to sit in their own cars, no matter how long it takes and how slowly they move. Can we really expect them to vote for common benefits over individual “penalty”? Why those who don’t currently commute by car should also vote against is a more complex question… possibly partly due to aspiration/expectation of joining the car-commuting classes, partly due to the prospects of increased council tax to pay off loans, and no doubt other reasons.

    The claim of “stealth tax” is much repeated. Ammunition is provided by the shifts in London, and mixed messages coming from other places. What started as a simple, clear objective – reducing the traffic levels in central London, with compensatory increases in public transport – has been significantly blurred. Supplementary environmental targets (increased charges for 4x4s etc), and geographical extension (in fact reducing the costs of driving in the centre by one of the affluent groups most likely to do so) have made it much easier for interest groups to attack Manchester’s proposals on the basis that “once it’s in, they’ll make it much worse by adding on x, y and z”.

    If government is ever going to take a lead, it needs to be very clear on what the purpose of road pricing is. Is it simply economic rationing of scarce resource, or is it to reduce emissions from traffic, or both? Without a clear and consistent line, whether or not the revenue is hypothecated to additional public transport provision, nobody is likely to vote in favour. Unless there are significant, immediate corresponding reductions in other taxes, anti campaigners will always be able to paint congestion charging as an additional, stealth tax.

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  • Nigel Frampton

    Assuming that the politicians who advocated the Manchester scheme genuinely believe that the public transport improvements would make an attractive alternative to the car, why don’t they just go ahead and implement that part of the plan? After all, the congestion charging part of the scheme was not going to be introduced until after most of the public transport improvements were ‘up and running’, so the funds required must already have been allocated for that purpose. On the basis that there needs to be an element of both ‘stick and carrot’ in such situations, that would be a reasonable way of providing the carrot first.

    If the public transport improvements really were to be so attractive, then perhaps the level of traffic would already have reduced by then – so there might not be so much congestion to charge for. That’s probably pie in the sky, but if the improvements and extensions to the public transport system are now simply abandoned, it clearly starts to look as if the politicians did not actually believe in the scheme they were promoting.

    At the end of the day, the most useful lessons from this exercise are for the politicians to learn. One is that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the other is don’t hold referenda!

  • Matthew Tempest

    @Chris Packham

    And Point 4 could be – to readjust the perspective – that rail commuters and bus-users don’t get a referendum each December on whether they want whopping fare increases in January, but car-drivers have to be asked if they’d mind paying more.

  • Kevin Steele

    Oh well – in the words of the Godfather of congestion charging – “if voting changed anything they’d abolish it”…… how true!!!

    That just about sums up this referendum perfectly.

  • David

    Just to add a note: the Dutch government made public on December 18th that it is pressing forward with a plan to price all roads in The Netherlands. The system is based on on board units that determine a vehicle’s location by GPS, but only send the aggregated distance travelled to a Government backoffice. At the beginning, there will be two price categories, based on time, location and driving direction: a congestion tariff and a normal one. The system should be implemented completely by 2018. The Minister of Transport, who off-the-record is his party’s next candidate for Prime Minister, has put all his weight behind this plan. The public’s reception of the plan is mainly positive, probably because of the seriousness of road congestion in this country, and because of the government explicit statement that it will not tax more, but only differently (i.e. paying for using a car instead of paying for owning it.)

    Just to illustrate Christian’s point about the need for an initiative coming from the political centre, backed by politicians with some status.

  • david walsh

    Another little point made to me by Manc friends was that there was a lot of suspicion around that the major bus operators would just pocket the cash, buy some new buses for effect and then just let their service degenerate back to what it is now, and handily blaming external costs for negating the impact of any TIF grant

  • Phillip Tipton

    As someone who has spent up to two hours in a car trying to get to my former place of work on the Manchester-Salford boundary on the A6, I can certainly attest to the existence of a serious congestion problem on routes into Manchester. I cannot conclude that the situation ‘is not as bad as it has been made out’ when a journey that takes around 25 minutes in normal traffic conditions is routinely quadrupled in length from 6:30am onwards. I live just outside the boundary of Wigan borough and therefore did not have a vote in the recent referendum, but my vote would have been a qualified ‘yes’ to the congestion charge.

    The reason why I can respect the scepticism of many of those who voted’ no’ is that I thought the proposals were ill thought-out and offered pretty intangible benefits for many public transport users, especially those on the fringes of the conurbation and those who do not commute from suburb to city, but rather travel radially or even outside of Greater Manchester. While the use of the M60 as a boundary for the outer charge zone seems intuitively sensible, it doesn’t take into account short journeys across this ring which do not materially add to major traffic blackspots In addition, many residents of Greater Manchester have major centres of employment which are outside the boundary of GM and are not explicitly the targets of the much-vaunted public transport improvements. To take Wigan as a case in point: the main public transport improvement seemed to be the Leigh guided busway, an innovation which would only benefit a small proportion of the borough’s bus users. What about the many residents who travel outside of GM to school/work, e.g. to St Helens or West Lancashire? There may be larger issues here as to whether GMPTE and Merseytravel should continue to work in their transport vacuums which seem implicitly to assume that cross-boundary travel is but a minor consideration in their ‘strategic plans’. In my case, I only wish public transport had been a feasible option for me to arrive on time to give my lectures at Salford University at 9am, without leaving home at around 5:30am. Someone like me is not on either GMPTE’s or Merseytravel’s radar, a fact only underlined by Merseytravel’s assinine refusal to show bus timetable information ‘beyond the county boundary’ in its publicity material.