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The UK Department for Transport (DfT) approved “programme entry” for the package of measures associated with the introduction of a proposed Congestion Charge on 9th June 2008. The next stage, prior to the public rejection of the scheme in the referendum in December 2008 would have been to secure Conditional Approval for the scheme.

The proposed large investment package of £2.7 billion (3.2 billion)  that would have been made to the area’s public transport system before the scheme was operational was considered an important factor in the scheme proceeding.

There were a number of preconditions that were established by the AGMA for proceeding with the TIF bid – known as the AGMA tests – which were:

1.     There had to be significant investment in public transport improvements including Metrolink. Crucially, enhanced capacity would have been in place prior to the introduction of any traffic restraint measures.

2.     Measures had to complement the competitiveness and inclusion priorities of the City Region and would not have been allowed to undermine the competitiveness of the Regional Centre or the town centres in the area.

3.     Any (proposed) measures would have had to have been acceptable to both the public and business community.

4.     Measures would have been relevant to where congestion existed or where it would have emerged in the future, notwithstanding the advent of public transport improvements.

The rejection of the Manchester Scheme – The arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ the proposal

It is difficult to quantify the argument ‘for’ and ‘against’ the proposed congestion charge in Manchester. However, in the following paragraph we list not only why its supporters believed it could succeed but also some of the arguments against its introduction that may start to explain why the scheme was rejected.

Arguments for the congestion charge in Manchester

The context for the introduction of a Congestion Charge

·         Car ownership has increased by about 25% over the last decade in the Greater Manchester conurbation.

·         Building more roads is not considered to be financially possible or environmentally acceptable.

·         Local transport officials agree that if left unchecked, congestion in Greater Manchester will not only result in greater pollution and air quality and higher carbon emissions, but will also damage the local economy. This is also the view supported by United City – a group representing transport/property consultants and a number of developers.

·         It is claimed that less congestion would create 10,000 new jobs in Greater Manchester and provide a major boost for the local economy.

The proposed benefits

·         The congestion charge would have been offset by £2.7bn (€3.2 bn) of public transport improvements. The charge would not have been introduced until there were significant improvements to bus, tram and rail services such as extensions to the Metrolink network to parts of the Manchester conurbation, bus priority measures, extra rail capacity and creating more public transport interchanges at rail stations.

·         The congestion charge would not be in place until 2013 at the earliest.

·         It was considered that access to key services and jobs would have been improved for the 30% of households in Manchester who do not own a car.

·         Proposals to support low income workers with a potential discount of up to a fifth of the charge were highlighted in the public consultation.

Arguments ‘against’ the congestion charge in Manchester

Identifying the need

·         Those opposed to the scheme questioned the need for the charge. Figures produced by the Urban Traffic Control unit show that congestion in 11 of the 14 centres in Greater Manchester had fallen since 2001.

Increasing the costs of motoring

·         Opponents of the scheme have pointed out that it would cost motorists up to £1,200 (€1,440) a year to enter and exit the congestion zones. This was seen as an extra motoring cost.

Identifying the true costs of the scheme

·         Many of the actual costs of running the scheme were unknown and the technical details of the scheme were to be outlined after the referendum. This led to some misunderstanding of the actual proposals.

·         The level of borrowing to match the £1.2bn (€1.4 bn) TIF investment in public transport was considered by opponents to be high. The £180m (€196 m) per year projected profit to repay that loan over a 30 year period was considered optimistic. The main comparison in this regard was the London scheme.

Fear of the unknown

·         The Greater Manchester Momentum Group (a group representing 125 businesses and organisations) was against the proposed congestion charge. They believed it was bad for the economy at a time of rising fuel prices and falling house prices.

·         Hauliers were reported to be opposed to the charge, claiming that plans to install bus lanes on 25 routes into Manchester would halve road space.

The rejection of the proposed scheme

It is difficult to categorically state the reasons for the negative referendum result in December 2008 at this stage but some practitioners and commentators1] have offered the following as possible reasons:

·         The public misunderstood the proposals and thought that the congestion charge would apply anytime, anywhere.

·         The debate never focused on public transport improvements, just on the congestion charge.

·         The public did not believe that public transport would get better after Government Minister Alistair Darling withdrew Government funding from the Metrolink ‘Big Bang’ project in 2004. People therefore thought they would get the tax but not see the benefits.

·         The current economic climate means that people are less likely to vote for something that is perceived as another tax.

·         Greater Manchester’s governance structures did not assist with the prospect of delivering an ambitious transport project as a number of councils would have to agree on the proposals before they were accepted.

·         Assurances to the business community were not given as fully as they should have been and thus many were against the charge.

·         Campaigners for the congestion charge did not fully focus on the health benefits of the congestion charge.

·         It appears that campaigning was not at a local level and therefore did not touch on the issues that really mattered to the public. Benefits/costs should be defined on a community by community basis.

This does provide a number of considerations rather than direct lessons for other cities who may be considering urban road user charging, not least the apparent lack of confidence in the proposed scheme and how it was perceived. In time, there may be more defined arguments and reasons presented for the resounding public rejection of the proposal in the referendum, not least that the public were asked to decide on a hypothetical scheme before they could see the benefits of a ‘real life’ scheme.

1] The comments noted here were recorded in Local Transport Today.

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