Rave from the grave: could congestion charging in Manchester be back on the agenda?

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On 12 December 2008, almost a decade ago, more than a million residents of Greater Manchester took part in a referendum on whether to accept a congestion charge in return for the local transport authority being given permission to borrow £2.7 billion.

The so-called Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) was, amongst other things, supposed to provide the cash to fund the “Big Bang” expansion of Metrolink to Oldham and Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Airport.

Despite voters being told there was ‘no Plan B’ to extend the tram system, the proposal was thrown out by a margin of almost four to one on a turnout that dwarfed that of every local election poll for decades.

Given that there did, after all, turn out to be a Plan B – not only was the original Big Bang completed, but also a spur to Didsbury and the recently opened Second City Crossing –  one might imagine that RIP TIF would have put an end to any thought of congestion charging in Manchester for good.

But no, it’s back on the agenda, put there by an organisation called Centre for Cities who say that making the case as to how congestion charging in Manchester city centre could benefit the whole city region should be a top priority for the new elected mayor when he or she takes office in May.

Good luck with this one. The added factor this time around, if a case is indeed to be made for a C-charge, is the rising hysteria surrounding air pollution caused by diesel cars. I won’t even try to lay odds on whether there’ll be a second referendum on the issue. Not after the result last time. Oh, and Brexit.

There is, however, a considerable difference between Centre for Cities’ suggestion for a city centre congestion charge and the plan so comprehensively thrown out in 2008.

Manchester city council has had the power to introduce road pricing and workplace parking levies since the Transport Act of 2000. But the leadership chose not to follow London’s lead for a very good reason. A little over three miles from the city’s commercial and retail heart, the Trafford Centre offers 10,000 free car parking spaces.

Recognising the economic consequences of going it alone, the city’s leaders resolved that any road charging scheme would have to be applied Greater Manchester-wide – code for nipping in the bud any trading advantages that might accrue to the Trafford Centre.

What emerged, therefore, with the government’s enthusiastic backing, were proposals for the biggest charging zone on the planet. All 80 square miles of it – a staggering ten times greater than the original London C-Charge area of just eight square miles.

It’ll be interesting to see, then, what emerges. Even today, central London retailers still complain about losing trade to out-of-town shopping centres and congestion remains a major problem in the capital. Try getting down Oxford Street or The Strand in a hurry. And the serried ranks of diesel buses, taxis and commercial vehicles clogging London’s streets produce some of the worst air pollution anywhere. It can’t just be diesel cars, there aren’t enough of them.

The other curious piece of mayoral advice emanating from Centre for Cities is that the money generated from charging in the city centre (businesses, already reeling from the potential impact of huge rate hikes are going to love a congestion tax) can be used to improve bus services in places like, er, Rochdale. Meanwhile the biggest transport bottleneck in Greater Manchester – the rail link between Piccadilly and Oxford Road stations – never gets considered.

Congestion charging is not about easing congestion for one very simple reason. If it really worked and people forsook the roads, not enough money would be raised to cover the administration costs of implementing it. But that’s not going to happen because public transport is nowhere near good enough to take the extra passengers at busy times.

It’s a tax, plain and simple. That’s why most politicians like the idea so much.

What do YOU think?

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