Page last updated at 22:42 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Drivers reject C-charge 'carrot'

By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Cars and a congestion charge sign in London
Plans in Manchester are back to the drawing board

This vote makes clear that given the choice, most people will not choose to pay more to drive. And it is not the first time.

The people of Edinburgh have already rejected their own congestion charge proposals.

The result will have effects both locally in towns and cities across Britain, and nationally, when it comes to the government's residual interest in pay-as-you-go motoring.

Manchester's transport plan was part of a bid for a pot of government money called the Transport Innovation Fund.

This is an attempt to use, as transport economists often describe them, both the carrot and the stick to keep the roads free of congestion.

Put simply, towns and cities are being offered the carrot of public transport investment, in return for simultaneously using the stick of measures to encourage people to drive less.

The government believes there is little point in having one without the other.

'Unwilling to pay'

In most cases the charging pays for the improvements. And Manchester was insistent the improvements would come before the charges, to show there would be a viable alternative for drivers unwilling to pay.

Many of Manchester's voters rejected these proposals because they instinctively focused on the stick, rather than the carrot. Of course the "No" campaign stressed little else.

Others reacting to the announcement said they simply hadn't believed the promise that public transport would be improved before the tolls were introduced in 2013.

And there was a third factor. Half of those eligible didn't vote at all. The "Yes" campaign believes these would have most likely been poorer voters, without cars. Precisely the group who would have benefited from better public transport, and might have voted yes.

But there is nothing to suggest that other towns and cities considering following Manchester will find their voters will think any differently.

Proponents of road pricing would argue that drivers will only vote to pay more, when they are persuaded they are getting something for their money. Namely quieter roads, quicker, and more reliable journey times.

Dropped baton

In the Manchester debate there was even a nagging doubt the city's congestion was that bad in the first place. Opponents produced statistics showing a slight, recent, dip in traffic levels on the city's streets. Only on motorways was the traffic growing.

So where does this leave the other towns and cities bidding for the Transport Innovation Fund? At present, nowhere is eager to take up Manchester's dropped baton.

Cities like Cambridge, Leeds and Bristol are exploring their options. Nottingham is interested in a tax on parking spaces provided by employers.

Of course, London introduced its congestion charge relatively smoothly.

Ken Livingstone's proposal was never truly popular. But he didn't have to build a political consensus to make it happen, he just had to be politically brave. Charging motorists was one area where he had serious power to make something happen.

Compare that to Manchester, where transport chiefs had to hold together 10 very different districts, all with something to win or lose from the charges and the infrastructure improvements.

It was a resounding failure, and Manchester is now back to the drawing board.



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