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Manchester says No to Road Pricing

After one million votes were received in a referendum of 10 local authority areas, 79% were against the proposed pay-as-you-drive scheme for Manchester.

The scheme was reported to potentially cost motorists up to £1,200 a year, based on paying around £5 to drive in and out of the heart of the city during the rush hour. No wonder then that, despite a promise of £1.5bn of government money for public transport, together with 10,000 extra jobs being created by the construction of tram lines and improved buses and trains, people in Manchester want to keep the convenience of their cars and save £1000 per year in extra tax.

The poll had a response rate of more than 50%. The backing of voters in at least seven of the polls was needed for the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities to push ahead with the proposals.

The government created a £2bn fund to support local charging schemes but this outcome has a significant impact for the government’s plans for road pricing across the UK. Having shelved plans for a national scheme, ministers were desperate to persuade a major conurbation to act as a guinea pig for a road pricing scheme.

The city’s yes campaign may not have been helped by the decision of Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, to abolish the western extension of the capital’s charging zone. Only Cambridgeshire is anywhere near submitting proposals under the Government’s Transport Innovation Fund. Other possible candidates include Leeds, Bristol and Reading. But their proposals are in an early stage and the Manchester rejection may dissuade councils from pressing ahead with the scheme.

Local businesses and residents must be consulted before any local authority can push ahead with a scheme and the Manchester vote suggests that public support will be difficult to secure.

Labour politicians in Manchester had worked closely with ministers at the Department for Transport to try to convince voters. A vitriolic campaign was fought between the yes and no camps.

Had it gone ahead, the charge would have been introduced in 2013, by which time 80% of the public transport improvements would have been completed. There would also have been discounts for the low-paid and exemptions for parts of the city that had to wait longer for improvements.

Motorists would have paid to cross two charging rings during the morning and evening rush hours. The outer ring roughly followed the orbital M60, while the inner ring surrounded the city centre.

The Downing Street petition calling for road pricing to be scrapped, orchestrated by Peter Roberts of the Drivers’ Alliance, attracted 1.8 million signatures.

Theresa Villiers, the Conservative transport spokesman, said “It is clear that the Government is completely out of touch with the problems people face in Manchester with the economic downturn. Labour’s attempt at bullying the city into accepting congestion charging has failed.”

But environmental campaigners voiced regret at the outcome of the poll. “Those who opposed the charge will now have to say how traffic problems in our cities can be addressed,” said Stephen Joseph, executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport.

“It’s not possible or desirable to build enough roads for free-flowing traffic. We will need better public transport but we will need to manage demand for road traffic too if we are to tackle congestion and cut pollution.

Graham Stringer, MP for Manchester Blackley, who opposed the charge, said: “I am delighted with the result. It’s a brave politician that goes forward with such a scheme, unless it is an extraordinarily good scheme that virtually everybody benefits from.”

He said the result showed there was hostility to road charging: “You have to come up with an extremely good scheme whereby you reduce other road taxes if you ever want road pricing by consent in this country.”

Stringer said it was a pity that three years had been wasted on the “ill thought out” scheme. He said officials must now go back to the government to talk about how they can invest in trams, trains and buses for Greater Manchester.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council, and an advocate of the scheme, said: “I am very disappointed. The issues have still not gone away. We still have issues of congestion, of poor air quality and poor public transport. There is no plan B, which is why we will have to have a period of reflection.”

The yes campaign, a coalition of local firms, unions and pressure groups, had argued that the region had a once-and-for-all chance to get its hands on billions invested in local transport.

The government argued it must tackle congestion now to avoid gridlock in the future, and building new roads was neither financially nor environmentally viable. It is exploring other options, including high-occupancy vehicle lanes on motorways and allowing cars to use the hard shoulder during busy times.