Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Drama lacking in road charge vote

By Mark McGregor
BBC News, Manchester

No campaigners reactions
Councillor David White (centre) was among the delighted no campaigners

As dramatic announcements go, it was hardly up there with Manchester getting the super-casino.

There were no gasps of surprise; no-one ran from the auditorium; there were no tears of joy or pain. In fact, the only shock was the overwhelming sense of inevitability to proceedings.

Even those behind the yes campaign were privately admitting defeat up to an hour before the results were officially known, but returning officer Sir Neil McIntosh kept us playing the guessing game.

Of course, the assembled media throng and sea of men in darkened suits already knew the result - everyone did. The huge piles of no ballots, lined up next to their paltry yes counterparts, told the whole story.

Greater Manchester had voted no. A resounding no.

So by the time Sir Neil did stand up to deliver the official verdict there was not so much a hush of expectation but irritated clock watching.

It's a vote no to improvements on Metrolink, on railways and on buses...
Lord Peter Smith, AGMA

But in the end, when it came, it was a result that not even those opposing the charge would have publicly anticipated in the weeks before this referendum.

Of the more than one million people who voted in this referendum, just 218,860 voted "Yes", with 812,815 voting "No" - or 79% of the vote.

The cheers as returning officer Sir Neil McIntosh delivered the final counts said it all - as did the fixed grimaces on the faces of the council leaders who had backed the scheme.

Some of them probably had an eye on their jobs; the majority were passionate about an issue that has dominated the dinner parties, work places and pubs of 1.94 million people across Greater Manchester.

Should motorists pay to drive into the city so that billions of pounds can be invested in public transport? The majority - overwhelming majority - in all 10 boroughs decided no.

Piles of no votes
The writing was on the table ahead of the announcement

Lord Peter Smith, leader of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), stood up and acknowledged the "very clear" will of the people and gave his reaction.

"It's a vote no to improvements on Metrolink, on railways and on buses," he began, before being drowned out by howls of derision from a handful of the victors.

Away from the pack there was a measured response from Susan Williams, the Conservative leader of Trafford Council, who hailed the result as a "victory for democracy in Manchester".

She told BBC News: "A lot of people engaged with this process, certainly in my own authority over 60% of people turned out to vote - that's really pleasing.

"And the result is so decisive: ten-nil against it.

"There is always a plan B and we must all regroup next week and call on the government to give us the money if they're indeed serious about the growth of cities."

'Deserved answer'

Behind Mrs Williams towards the front of the darkened auditorium, a hardcore group of no campaigners were still soaking up the size of their majority.

Among them Stockport Liberal Democrat councillor David White, who said the people had spoken "loudly and clearly" against the concept of road charging.

He told BBC News: "The investment wasn't there. People in Stockport said to me they wanted to see a good decent public transport system in place before they might go along with it.

"That wasn't going to be in place. It isn't in place, therefore they got the answer they deserved."

Despite the ill-feeling between the campaigns one thing that unites both sides of the debate is the need for investment in the region's public transport.

Lis Phelan, chair of the Yes Campaign, told the BBC Greater Manchester was now not "going to get the transport improvements that the region really needs".

We've all got to now work together to find a way to secure the investment for the transport system we need for the future
Angie Robinson, chamber of commerce

"And okay, we won't get a congestion charge either, but the congestion isn't going away," she added.

The architects of the scheme calculated that an effective, integrated public transport scheme would create tens of thousands of jobs.

A congestion charge, they argued, would pay for those improvements while at the same time getting rid of the traffic that threatened to cripple economic growth.

But even those directly affected by the proposals, business owners - regardless of their positioning inside or outside the charging rings - were voting no in principle, said Angie Robinson, chair of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

And as the crowds dispersed and the cleaners moved in, Mrs Robinson told BBC News that industry, like the politicians, was now ready to move on.

"I think the real important thing now is this is done, this is dusted - people have spoken," she said.

"But, we still need a world-class public transport system, we still have growing congestion issues with the cost to businesses and also the environmental impact.

"We've all got to now work together to find a way to secure the investment for the transport system we need for the future."

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