Honk if you support the voters of Manchester
Mancunians have struck a blow against the politics of behaviour and blackmail by shunning the congestion charge.
‘There is no plan B, which is why we will have to have a period of reflection.’ (1)
Another referendum, another politician trying to make sense of how the best-laid plans can come apart when put to the popular vote. Earlier this year, it was the EU trying to pick up the pieces after Ireland voted ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty. This time around, it was the leader of Manchester’s city council, Sir Richard Leese, shaking his head after a new transport plan for Manchester – including a controversial ‘congestion charge’ scheme – was roundly defeated at the polls.
Given the political pressure applied to Mancunian voters by central government to rubber-stamp this scheme, their refusal to do so, their display of an independent spirit of rejection, deserves our praise.
The Manchester transport scheme promised megabucks for an overhaul of the city’s creaking public transport infrastructure. According to the official website promoting the plan, there would have been up to £3billion of funding available for transport improvements, made up of central government grants of £1.5billion and £1.2billion of local funding, much of it borrowed against future revenue from the proposed rush-hour congestion charge (2).
The congestion charge proposal was a little convoluted, but roughly went like this: drivers heading towards Manchester would pay £2 per day in the morning rush to enter the ‘outer ring’ of the city, plus an extra £1 per day to enter the city centre. In the evening rush hour, a £1 charge would apply to leave the city centre and a further £1 to exit the outer ring. So, drivers commuting to work in the city centre from the numerous towns around Manchester might have paid a total of £5 per day for the privilege, while city residents working in the centre would have had to pay £2 per day.
The Manchester scheme, while a little fiddly to explain, would have been nothing like as expensive or onerous as London’s congestion charge. In London, vehicles are charged £8 per day for entering the city centre (a fairly widely drawn area) between 7am and 6pm, regardless of where they are going to, even outside of the rush hour. There are exceptions for residents of the central area (who get a discount) and drivers of ‘green’ vehicles, who pay nothing at all. The fines for non-payment quickly become eye-wateringly stiff and can ultimately lead to your car being seized.
Despite the proposed Manchester scheme being a little fairer than the London congestion charge, the drivers of Greater Manchester were clearly not happy with the idea of footing the bill for transport improvements or, at least, were sceptical about whether politicians would deliver the planned overhaul at all. As a result, the proposal was shot down by a margin of four to one, on a relatively high turnout of 53 per cent. (In comparison, this year’s Manchester city council elections attracted an underwhelming 27 per cent of voters (3).) Seven out of 10 voting areas in Greater Manchester needed to approve the transport plan in order for it to pass; not one of them did.
This result was a metaphorical car crash for those promoting the idea of road pricing across Britain as a model for reducing congestion. The government went so far as to blackmail the people of Greater Manchester to accept the principle of paying to use roads at particular times. The transport secretary, Geoff Hoon, made clear before the poll that a ‘No’ vote would mean not only losing the £1.2billion in locally generated revenue, but also all of the £1.5billion of central government cash (4). In other words, for all those squeezed like sardines into buses, trains and trams in the rush hour, the government’s warm-hearted message was: screw you if you don’t vote the ‘right’ way.
Congestion is a problem, it is true, in many parts of Britain. Proponents of the Manchester transport plan claimed that the city has the slowest-moving traffic in England. In built-up areas, there is clearly a limit to how many extra roads can be built (though a little imagination and investment could go a long way). Getting more people on to public transport would certainly help to ease the burden, but that won’t happen unless services become more frequent, less crowded and more reliable. And that means spending money. While nobody likes paying higher fares or more tax, that is just the kind of uncomfortable choice that has to be made.
Rather than face up to that dilemma, however, politicians have hit on the wheeze of punishing drivers instead. By moralising about (and overstating) the damage that drivers do to the environment and health with their pollution, and the harm to the economy caused by clogging up the roads, local and national leaders believe they can justify slapping hefty charges on to them. This avoids a lot of unpleasantness about explaining to voters or passengers why they might have to pay more to fund better infrastructure, while indulging in the kind of behavioural micromanagement that has become a badge of honour for politicians of every party these days.
The London congestion charge is the epitome of the new ‘politics of behaviour’. The charge, introduced in February 2003 by then-mayor Ken Livingstone, did have some positive effect on congestion in its early years, though quite how much is debatable. However, it certainly hasn’t solved the problem of rush-hour delays. Meanwhile, the scheme itself has brought in considerably less income for public transport improvements than expected.
What has happened instead has been a shift in the focus of the scheme. In effect, it is not so much a congestion charge as a climate change charge. If your vehicle is eco-friendly, like the electric-petrol hybrid Toyota Prius or the comical all-electric G-Whizz, then you pay nothing. In other words, City Hall under Livingstone used the charge to promote his ecological hobbyhorses while the streets remained, by and large, as gridlocked as ever. No wonder voters elsewhere have decided that congestion charges are a bad idea.
However, this tinkering with our behaviour is just the kind of thing that greens love, so they are appalled at the Manchester verdict. Jeff Gazzard, a green transport campaigner debating the result on BBC Radio 5 on Friday night, was dismissive of the decision-making abilities of Manchester’s citizens: ‘You have to say that people get what they deserve. They’ll get more accidents, more pollution, more noise, more red bits denoting poor air quality around Manchester. It’s a bit like asking Sun readers if they want to bring back hanging; you know what the result is going to be in advance.’
Gazzard noted that leaving it to the people to decide tends not to produce the ‘right’ result: ‘We’ve had one successful campaign of imposed congestion charging in London. We’ve had one referendum in Scotland which failed and we’ve had one in Manchester which has failed. We’ve had the people in the West Midlands agree that they don’t want to do it.’ In other words, better to impose these things on people for their own good rather than give them a choice.
Gazzard’s anti-democratic outlook, like that of the EU’s leaders in relation to the Lisbon Treaty, typifies a mood among politicians and campaigners alike that important decisions cannot be left to the masses. But the people of Manchester and Ireland have grasped rare opportunities to make a genuine choice in political life and reminded our leaders that they should not be taken for granted.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Rob Lyons urged New Yorkers to vote against the congestion charge. Tim Black told Mancunians to say no to the ‘sin tax’. Nico Macdonald described how London is still stuck in a jam. Brendan O’Neill welcomed us to the stay-at-home society. Austin Williams showed how politicians regard uppity motorists as a political pollutant. Or read more at spiked issue Transport.
(1) Road pricing blow as Manchester rejects congestion charge, Guardian, 13 December 2008
(3) Election Results 1 May 2008, Manchester City Council
(4) Hoon: No c-charge plan B, Manchester Evening News, 13 November 2008
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.