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Inevitably the focus now is on why there should be such an overwhelming rejection of a scheme that had been under development for over five years. A number of possible causes are suggested below, based on earlier consultation and views expressed in the media and elsewhere at the time of the vote. These are unlikely to be comprehensive, and the outcomes of current research on public attitudes to congestion charging in Edinburgh post-referendum will be required before the issues are fully understood.

A major area of uncertainty is the extent to which this was a vote against the principle of congestion charging, a vote against the particular scheme proposed, or a vote against the Council for wider reasons. All these factors seem likely to have been in play. For example, the Conservative opposition (13 out of the 58 Council members) opposed the principle of congestion charging in Edinburgh outright while the Liberal Democrats (15 Councillors) opposed the specifics of the scheme, in particular its timing. They took the view that more public transport alternatives should be in place first. The Labour administration, the only other party represented on the Council, were therefore left as the only supporters of the scheme. The administration’s overall majority of just 2 seats will have had the effect of politicizing the issue, with opposition parties taking the opportunity to seek potential future electoral advantage. No charismatic champion of the scheme who would have the confidence of the public, emerged to build support.

Neighbouring authorities, also all Labour controlled, particularly opposed the outer cordon and the exemption for Edinburgh citizens living outside it, while indicating their support for the principle of congestion charging. Although only residents of Edinburgh could vote in the referendum, the opposition from surrounding areas affected the publicity about the scheme, and may well have influenced opinion within the city.

A range of issues appear to have influenced voting behavior, ranging from serious errors of fact, to issues of fairness, to perceptions about taxation. Some key points are suggested to be:

  • Mistrust of Council motives (illustrated, for example, by a perception by some that the Council’s bus priority and traffic calming measures are designed to ‘generate congestion’);
  • Some aspects of the proposals being seen as ‘unfair’, in particular the outer Edinburgh exemption;
  • Errors of fact about the charging proposals, including by the media
  • Insufficient connection between up-front investments and the charging scheme;
  • Lack of understanding/definition of the associated long-term investment proposals;
  • Lack of obvious benefits for motorists;
  • A belief that improvement of public transport (agreed by most to be necessary) will on its own reduce car use;
  • Belief that government would/should pay for transport investment – from the ‘excessive’ taxes already paid by motorists.

These issues might suggest that the Council and promoters of the transport strategy were unsuccessful in their communications strategy, not only in the referendum campaign but also more generally in their promotion of integrated transport policies over a period of time. A major information campaign was mounted prior to the referendum, which sought to present information about the strategy in a balanced way. However, legal requirements about the use of public money in the period leading up to the referendum meant that great care had to be taken about how the issues were presented, limiting the creativity that could be employed in attracting the attention of the public. The £600,000 (€720,000) available for this campaign, while substantial by Council standards, is not a very large sum for a major marketing campaign. No public funds were made available for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigning groups, something that has been done in other referenda and is recommended1] by the Initiatives and Referenda Institute (IRI), an international referendum ‘think-tank’.

This leads on to the issue of the referendum itself. The IRI report highlights a number of issues about the referendum, both positive and negative. A key point is that there is limited experience of such tests in the UK, and little in the way of a legal framework or good practice guidelines. Indeed the Edinburgh referendum had no legal status; in legal terms it was simply ‘a test of public opinion’. Nevertheless, a substantial effort was made to manage the process fairly and avoid the risk of legal challenge, limiting resources for dealing with the substantive issues. Many lessons remain to be learnt about the referendum process and the promotion of a major policy at a referendum.

1] IRI-EUROPE, A Preliminary Assessment of the Transport Edinburgh Referendum, Edinburgh/Stockholm/Brussels, 1 March 2005. (www.iri-europe.net)