Mancunian motorists, say ‘No’ to this sin tax

The proposal for a road-pricing scheme in Greater Manchester shows what is driving today’s anti-car zealotry: distrust of the people.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Science & Tech

Manchester has been promised a ‘revolution in public transport’. These are grand words. But what was Lord Smith of Leigh, head of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, actually promising? A trans-city cross-rail, perhaps? An air-conditioned underground system? Triple decker buses?

Not exactly. The object of his hype was in fact road-pricing, getting vehicle drivers to pay a charge for using certain sections of road system in Manchester. Such is the grip of the politics of low horizons in the UK that the introduction of a Middle Ages-style road-toll system can be described as a ‘revolution’.

Given the go-ahead by UK transport secretary Ruth Kelly earlier this week, the road-pricing proposal – which is effectively Manchester’s equivalent of London’s congestion charge – suggests that drivers should pay a fee when entering two designated areas of the city. As opposed to the London version, which is applicable between 7am and 6pm every weekday, Manchester’s toll would apply during rush-hour periods (7am-9.30am and 4pm-6.30pm).

Clearly, this is not the ‘revolution in public transport’ that Lord Smith would have us believe – yet there is little doubting its expansiveness. Twenty per cent of Manchester’s 2.5million citizens will be affected, in contrast to the five per cent of London’s six million citizens who are affected by the congestion charge. That is, 500,000 people will have to pay around £5 a day just to drive in Manchester.

The reason why Manchester councils might want to implement such a scheme is not difficult to fathom: Ruth Kelly is offering Manchester £1.5billion worth of public funding to improve bus, tram and rail links if they implement a London-style congestion charge (1). Little wonder that opponents of the road-pricing proposal have described Kelly’s offer as a ‘bribe’ and as ‘bullying, pure and simple’ (2).

If the financial incentive is clear, the practical usefulness of any road-pricing scheme is not. This isn’t to suggest that traffic congestion is not a problem; indeed, transport can always be improved, and one way to tackle congestion is to have something approaching a real ‘revolution’ in transport policy: that is, build more and better roads. Yet, as the UK Independent points out, figures produced by the urban traffic control unit in Manchester show that congestion in 11 of the 14 centres of Greater Manchester has fallen since 2001 (3).

The fact that relative inclines or declines in levels of congestion have not impacted on the road-pricing plans is telling. Because for the authorities, the fundamental problem is not deemed to lie in the current volume, or even the projected volume, of Manchester city centre’s traffic, but in the ‘bad’ actions and decisions of the citizenry.

The congestion charge is not in any simple sense a practical solution to a practical problem. Rather, the problem of clogged-up roads is refracted through the prism of morality, of how individuals choose to live. So, while invoking the mantra of ‘sustainable growth’, Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City council, proclaimed: ‘The congestion charge is as much about changing behaviour as it is about raising revenue.’ (4)

Traffic, it seems, is not a problem of inadequate road layouts or poor public transport infrastructure, but of something else: the individual’s errant decision-making. In this context, the meaning of the car changes. It ceases to be venerated as an extension of individual freedom, a means to transport oneself at one’s own will, and becomes a symbol of complacent, self-absorbed, self-interestedness – especially when it is driven by what has become shorthand for a soulless existence, ‘the commuter’.

In a volley of verbosity of which spiked’s very own ethical columnist Ethan Greenhart would be proud, one supporter of the congestion charge goes so far as to describe cars as a ‘dangerous infestation of poisonous metal vermin’ that ‘[pump] their cocktail of poisonous gases, heavy metals and particulates into the fragile lungs of my kids’. He argues that the biggest potential benefit of Manchester’s prospective congestion charge will be that the owners of said ‘vermin’ will have ‘to change their lifestyle’: ‘Such people have to realise that their lifestyle choice is at the root of the problem… Enough is enough. It is time for those who drive around the city to take responsibility.’ (5) Of course, Mancunians will still have the choice of whether or not to drive – but they will literally have to pay for the consequences. It is what John Stuart Mill described as a ‘sin tax’.

In political and media circles, support for the congestion charge is often underpinned, not just by anti-car sentiments, but by a deep-seated distrust of people. Apparently, given the choice, individuals will invariably make the wrong decision; and the car-driving masses are selfishness writ large, so the thinking goes. According to this view, financially coercive measures provide a way to use the individual’s self-interest against his or her own worst excesses. Or in the words of a recent Guardian editorial, ‘if we want to shift towards being a greener society less centred around the car, then a congestion charge… is obviously a useful tool.’ (6)

But what of the popular resistance to the proposals? Unfortunately, from the lofty managerial vantage point of policymakers and their media cheerleaders, the widespread popular opposition in Manchester is taken as a perverse validation of the road-pricing proposal. After all, what is a moral mission without its sinners? Sir Richard Leese captures well the missionary zeal: ‘My belief is that if the politicians of Greater Manchester have the strength and confidence to do what is very clearly in the long-term interests of this conurbation and all its people… we will be rewarded for that strength of purpose.’ (7) If not in this world of grim material interests, then certainly in heaven…

Needing seven out of 10 local authorities to agree to the proposal, the congestion charge is not a certainty just yet. One hopes that the representatives of the four currently unwilling to sign up to this punitive worldview are able to match their opponents’ disdainful attitude towards the car-driving public with a vision of public mobility that sees transport as a liberation rather than a curse. City congestion might then be grasped as a problem to be resolved through a genuine ‘revolution in public transport’ and not through socially engineering the sinful public.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyonswarned New Yorkers about the congestions charge. Nico Macdonald noted that London was still stuck in a jam. Austin Williams asked if a petition against road-pricing was steering the debate in the wrong direction. Amidst all the talk of congestion charges, Mick Hume wondered where the plans for new roads were. Brendan O’Neill said welcome to the stay-at-home society. Or read more at spiked issue Transport.

(1) £2.8bn for Manchester transport as congestion charge plan confirmed, Guardian, 10 June 2008

(2) See £2.8bn for Manchester transport as congestion charge plan confirmed, Guardian, 10 June 2008; More reaction to the proposed Manchester congestion charge, Rochadale Online, 10 June 2008

(3) The Big Question: Does Manchester need a congestion charge, and will it spread elsewhere?, Independent, 10 June 2008

(4) C-charge: The great debate, Manchester Evening News, 17 July 2007

(5) Decongestant drops, Guardian, 10 june 2008

(6) Editorial: Manchester’s congestion charge, Guardian, 10 June 2008

(7) Congestion charge to get green light in Mancheser, Daily Mail, 12 June 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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