Thursday, October 23, 2008

Manchester C-charge debate kicks off

The battle over plans to introduce Britain's biggest congestion charge zone in Manchester have begun in earnest as opponents have hit out at the proposed referendum as unbalanced and incomprehensible.

Of particular concern is that the congestion charge is not even mentioned on the proposed ballot paper.

The referendum question reads: "Do you agree with the Transport Innovation Fund proposals?" - a reference to the £3bn package of public transport improvements promised to Manchester by the government in return for agreeing to implement a charge from 2013.

The Greater Manchester Momentum Group (GMMG), a business alliance that opposes the charge, said almost half Manchester's residents did not know about the plans, despite a 14-week consultation.

"We feel strongly that the current suggestion [for the referendum] is unbalanced and . . . would mean little to many people who don't even know about the consultation," a spokesman said.

"Transport Innovation Fund is jargon and would mean little to many people, who didn't even know about the consultation."

As we commented here on this blog back in June, when the government gave the nod to the scheme, it's bizarre that Manchester is considering introducing congestion charging at all given admissions in London that the capital's landmark scheme has failed to cut congestion, evidence that the average speed of traffic in London is dropping, not increasing, and the pending outcome of a public consultation on whether the western extension to the zone should be scrapped altogether.

That the government and Manchester authorities seem prepared to ignore the evident failure and unpopularity of the London scheme indicates strongly that milking yet more cash from the already over-burdened car user is the only real motivation behind the plan.

The Manchester scheme will include two charging rings, one just inside the M60 and the other around the city centre. Drivers would pay to cross each at peak times when entering in the morning and leaving at night, in contrast to London's catch-all scheme.

Dave Goddard, leader of Stockport council and an opponent of the scheme has also criticised the referendum question.

He said: "Electoral Commission guidelines say the question should be in language people can understand. People understand the congestion charge, they do not understand 'Transport Innovation Fund'."

For the plans to come into effect, seven of the 10 Manchester boroughs must agree. It is expected that Mr Goddard and the leaders of Trafford and Bury councils, who also oppose the congestion charge, will be outvoted at a meeting of Greater Manchester authorities next week that will decide the referendum question.

Ballot papers will be sent out next month and must be returned by post by December 11. Though the poll has no legal force, council leaders have agreed to abide by the result.