The Big Question: Does Manchester need a congestion charge, and will it spread elsewhere?

Paul Vallely
Tuesday 10 June 2008 00:00 BST

Why are we asking this now?

The Government yesterday announced funding for Britain's biggest road-pricing scheme yet. Based across Manchester, it will be 12 times bigger than London's when it was first set up. Although its charges will be lower than London's – up to £5 a day rather than £8 – a far greater proportion of the city's 2.5 million citizens, about 20 per cent of drivers, will have to pay. Unlike London's scheme, which taxes movement in general, it will only affect drivers entering and leaving the city over five hours at the beginning and end of the day. It will add about £1,200 to the motoring costs of tens of thousands of drivers.

Is Manchester really that congested?

Not compared to London. Its rush-hour lasts for only about 40 minutes, and figures produced by the urban traffic control unit in the city show that congestion in 11 of the 14 centres of Greater Manchester has fallen since 2001. But local politicians have been convinced that the city centre is heading for gridlock in years to come.

What does the plan involve?

Two rings will be established around the city. It will cost £2 to cross the outer motorway ring-road, the M60, and then £1 to cross the inner ring road, between 7am and 9.30am. In the evenings, it will cost £1 each to cross the two roads between 4pm and 6.30pm. Charges will be levied by electronic scanning of tags attached to windscreens. Five years on, a GPS satellite-tracking system would be introduced which could charge by the mile. In return, a £3bn package will be approved to improve public transport, with extra buses and new tram and railway lines to the City of Manchester Stadium, the Trafford Centre and many other parts of the conurbation.

Isn't this a huge investment in public transport?

Yes, although only £1.2bn will come from the Government's Transport Innovation Fund. The rest will be borrowed by Mancunians and repaid from the £180m per year profit that the congestion charge will raise over 30 years. Critics argue that this is wildly over-optimistic, saying that London's charge fails to make anywhere near that amount. They say as much as £2.68 of the £5 charge will be paid to the private company running the scheme, which will cost £470m to set up. Opponents also argue that the private companies which run Manchester's buses will not run services in poorer areas.

Do local people want it?

Not really. Depending on which poll you believe, the city is either split down the middle or largely opposed. A Manchester Evening News poll found that 64 per cent of people were opposed to a congestion charge. But 59 per cent said it was "a price worth paying" for improvements to trams, trains and buses. A survey by the lobby group Manchester Against Road Tolls suggests that 80 per cent of the population are against the scheme.

Local business is split too. The Greater Manchester Momentum Group is against the idea, saying it will be bad for the economy at a time of rising fuel prices and falling house prices. They fear it will turn the city centre into a ghost town, with shoppers migrating even more to out-of-town retail parks and companies moving out of the central zone to avoid the charge. A YouGov survey of 1250 chief executives, directors and managers suggested that four out of five businesses opposed the plan. But there is a vocal business group called United City supporting the scheme. Its members include three of Manchester's biggest property developers, alongside various surveyors and construction associates who, critics suggest, have strong funding ties to local councils.

The green lobby is divided. Some campaigners point to health improvements from reduced pollution but others claim that the city's diesel buses are part of the problem, not the solution. Piccadilly bus station in central Manchester is reportedly the second-most polluted place in Britain, where buses produce high levels of sooty emissions linked to respiratory problems such as asthma.

Hauliers are deeply opposed to the charge, claiming that plans to install bus lanes on 25 routes into Manchester will halve road space. Civil liberties campaigners have objected to the prospect of satellite-tracking.

So who does want it?

Local politicians. They foresee faster journey times, health improvements and fewer road accidents and more jobs. Congestion is a hidden tax which will cost 30,000 jobs in the next 15 years, claims the Manchester City Council leader, Sir Richard Leese.

Will the scheme go ahead?

Seven of the 10 local authorities in Manchester have to vote in favour of the deal. To date, three councils – Trafford, Bury and Stockport – are opposed or have withdrawn their support after surveys showed most residents and businesses were against the proposals. A fourth, Bolton, has promised to hold a referendum. Three months of consultation must now follow.

Will the charge spread to other cities?

When the Transport Innovation Fund was announced, 10 councils expressed interest – but only Manchester and Cambridgeshire submitted bids. A Bristol and Bath congestion charge could be in place within six years, with a £1.4bn TIF bid being considered. A £4 charge would operate from 7am to 10am but not in the afternoons. Birmingham and six other West Midlands metropolitan councils dropped plans after splits among politicians and fears from business leaders that the idea would be bad for the region's economy and disastrous for the competitiveness of local industry.

Could Labour lose votes over it?

Many Labour MPs fear so. The chief proponent of the Manchester scheme, Roger Jones, who was the Labour chairman of the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority, lost his council seat last month to an anti-charging candidate. Labour was trounced into third place.

Opponents of the scheme have already threatened to unseat the Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly, who is the MP for Bolton West, at the next election. Her opponent will be Susan Williams, the Conservative leader of Trafford Council, who opposes the plan.

With a majority of only 2,000, the smallest in the Cabinet, Ms Kelly may have decided that she will probably lose her seat anyway. Approving congestion charging for Manchester, residents fear, may be a decision to go out in a "blaze of glory".

Is it right to demand payment to drive into the centre of Manchester?


*If it accepts the deal, the city will receive a £3bn investment that will transform its public transport system.

*The risk of not accepting the scheme is the loss of some 30,000 jobs.

*The scheme will bring more reliable journey times, health improvements and fewer road accidents.


*Unlike London when its scheme was introduced, traffic levels in Manchester are falling – not rising.

*The true cost to people living in Manchester will be far higher than the Government claims.

*It will turn the city centre into a ghost town – driving shops, businesses and customers to out-of-town retail outlets.

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