Page last updated at 00:07 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Manchester in traffic charge vote

By Judith Moritz
BBC North of England correspondent

Cars and a congestion charge sign in London
Manchester is voting on whether or not to introduce congestion charges

The congestion question has been vexing the people of Greater Manchester since 2005, when the prospect of paying to drive in and out of the city was first mooted.

But although the debate - to pay or not to pay - has rumbled along for years, the 1.9m people of Manchester will now have to concentrate their minds on the subject.

Ballot papers will start to go out next week, heralding the start of a two week polling period.

The result is due on 12 December and it is awaited keenly in Manchester and beyond.

There are other cities, including Bristol and Leeds, who are considering similar schemes.

I work because I want to provide for my family, but it's getting to the point where the cost of living, the cost of fuel, and then additional costs like this, it actually looks on paper like you'd be better off out of work
Andy Chesters, commuter

So what is at stake for the UK's third largest city?

Firstly, if charging is introduced, the proposed zone will be the largest in the world, at 80 square miles.

It dwarfs the London scheme, which is the next biggest at 15 square miles.

But while Londoners currently pay a flat fee of 8 per day, Mancunians have been told that they would pay a maximum of 5 a day, if they drive into the city in the morning rush hour and out at the evening peak time.

The scheme is only operational on weekdays, and split into two zones.

Transport improvements

The outer ring is the city's orbital motorway, the M60. To cross its boundaries motorists would be charged 2 in morning rush hour and 1 in the evening.

The inner ring encircles the city centre, and costs another 1 in each direction during each of the two rush hours.

The charge will only come into effect in 2013 if the majority of residents in seven out of Manchester's 10 council areas vote for it.

And it is also pegged to 3bn of money which is earmarked for public transport improvements.

Voters have been given this incentive - vote for the charge, and you'll see more trams, buses and trains, as well as improved cycle routes.

The charge would only be introduced once 80% of these improvements have been made.

Opposing campaigns

There's enormous strength of feeling on both sides of the debate. Business has squared up against business, commuter against commuter.

Two powerful campaigns have sprung up, and no one who's been anywhere near Manchester recently can have failed to notice the billboard posters plastered across the city.

The pro-side includes Manchester's Arndale shopping Centre, the Co-op, the TUC, and Friends of the Earth.

The anti-side is spearheaded by Peel Holdings, who own the Trafford Centre, and other businesses, including Unilever and Kelloggs.

But what do the legions of ordinary commuters think?

Andy Chesters is a recruitment consultant from Wigan. He drives to his office in Salford Quays every day, and would therefore have to cross the outer ring during both rush hours.

It means that he would have to pay 700 a year, and that's not a bill that he's keen to fork out for.

He doesn't feel that the public transport improvements would help him, as he says that it would take too long to travel into work that way, and he points out that he needs his car for work.

'Unreliable' service

Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel whilst queuing on the M602 motorway he told BBC News that he is used to congestion, but doesn't feel that a charge is the only answer.

He said: "I work because I want to provide for my family, but it's getting to the point where the cost of living, the cost of fuel, and then additional costs like this, it actually looks on paper like you'd be better off out of work".

On the other side of the coin is Carol Roberts, who lives in Greater Manchester and already uses public transport to travel into work.

Her commute involves catching the train and tram, but she's used to crowded carriages, and says she'll vote "yes" so that the facilities are improved.

Talking as she boarded the train to Salford Crescent station she said: "Sometimes it is so busy that you're crammed in like sardines. It's absolutely disgusting.

"The train guy can't get down to get your ticket, he can't find anyone to pay it in any case. It's unreliable, and you're constantly late."

Both the "yes" and "no" campaign teams maintain that they have a strong chance of victory.

They have another fortnight to make their cases to the voters of Manchester.

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