Analysis: charged debate

Considering Manchester's plans to transform transport in the city.

Manchester seems set to become the first UK city outside of London to introduce a large-scale congestion charge - but not for at least five years. The proposal is by no means a done deal yet, in spite of Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly's agreement to earmark £1.5bn for a package of transport measures across the city, including a peak-time road charge.

What Kelly actually announced on 9 June is that Greater Manchester's bid for money from the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) has been granted programme entry. That means that the government supports the package in principle and has set aside the money, but will not release it yet. Now the Manchester authorities will have to carry out a public consultation on their proposals before applying for approval. Assuming the scheme is not scuppered at the consultation stage, the application for conditional approval is expected in the autumn.

Greater Manchester, a conurbation comprising ten separate local authorities, is one of the fastest-growing economies in the UK, and the largest outside London. The drawback is growing pressure on all forms of local transport, as more people travel into the city. This increasing congestion could stifle further growth and impact the availability of jobs as well as wider economic prosperity.

The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) and the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority (GMPTA) have put together a comprehensive set of proposals for improvements to bus, rail and tram services, to be followed by introduction of a congestion charge at peak times.

The charge is aimed at persuading those rush-hour drivers who have a choice to change either their mode or time of travel, or possibly even abandon 'low-value' journeys. Those who don't have a choice, or who choose to 'stay and pay', should benefit from an easier and faster journey.

Specifically, the scheme is designed around two 'cordons'. Drivers travelling towards Manchester on weekday mornings between 0700 and 0930 will pay £2 (at 2007 prices) when crossing an outer ring (just within the M60 ring road) and £1 on crossing an inner ring. During the evening peak, outbound drivers will pay £1 to cross each ring. There will be no charge for vehicles travelling around the M60 or around the inner ring.

The scheme will use microwave 'tag and beacon' technology, with regular users having transponders fitted in their vehicles so they can be identified automatically as they pass the charging points. Occasional travellers and deliberate non-payers will be picked up by number-plate recognition cameras.

Backers of the proposal hope to see the number of peak-hour trips fall by 15-20 per cent, especially if local employers can be persuaded to allow more flexible working hours and working from home, and parents cooperate on the school run.

Kelly's announcement was immediately welcomed by environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Campaign for Better Transport, as well as by bus and tram operator Stagecoach Group.

Stagecoach chief executive Brian Souter said the funding package "provides a real opportunity to transform services for the benefit of millions of people. We believe the right package of partnership measures is being put together, including more bus priority, a network of park and ride services, improved local bus networks, and Kickstart pump-priming initiatives, which are crucial in giving motorists an attractive alternative to the car."

The rejoicing is not universal, however. The Road Haulage Association believes that AGMA has "failed to recognise the contribution made by couriers and other freight forwarders to the economy of Greater Manchester. Any charge will have a direct negative impact on freight deliveries both inside and outside the charging area."

The Transport Innovation Fund was set up by the Department for Transport to encourage public authorities to develop imaginative transport strategies, but the DfT website makes it clear that the money is tied to the department's own policy preferences, referring to "packages that combine demand management such as road pricing with modal shift and better bus services", and also to "innovative mechanisms which raise new funds".

A group called Manchester Against Road Tolls, which acts as a voice for local opposition, describes the TIF as "bribery", saying it expects the consultation to be a "total sham in which anti-charge views will be ignored".

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers went further in her response to Kelly's Parliamentary statement, saying that people were being told there would be no money to improve transport in Manchester if they rejected congestion charging. "That is bullying, pure and simple," she said.

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