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Congestion charge - no!

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It took about 90 minutes watching the counters at the Greater Manchester congestion charge referendum for gallows humour to break out in the ‘Yes’ campaign.

As the piles of ballot papers rejecting the government’s offer of billions of pounds of transport funding in return for the charge started to dwarf those in favour, staffers hatched a daring last-ditch plan.

“Right, you distract the officials by running topless across the room, and I’ll make off with the ‘No’ votes,” one said to another. "Does anyone want to swap name-badges?” pleaded campaign director Daniel Hodges.

In the end, their defeat was more crushing than any could have imagined - all 10 boroughs unanimously rejected the proposals by an average ratio of almost four to one on a high turnout.

Shattered consensus

For years, the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) forged ahead with ambitious projects on a consensual basis whilst other partnerships dissolved into political in-fighting. This result has, perhaps only temporarily, shattered that consensus.

Taking the stage to confirm the results, Lord Peter Smith (Lab), leader of Wigan MBC and AGMA chair, ungraciously slammed the result as not only a vote against the charge but “a vote against improvements on Metrolink, on railways and on buses”.

He may have been provoked by some vicious barracking and calls for his resignation, but his comments prompted groans and bowed heads amongst many of the chief executives present.

“I wish he hadn’t said that,” one muttered. “And I’m surprised because he’s usually someone I have a huge amount of respect for.”

Towards a ‘Plan B’

So where does AGMA go from here? The leaders of the 10 boroughs meet on Friday to ratify the result and perhaps try to work out the first steps towards devising a ‘Plan B’.

Of the leaders LGC talked to, all agreed that the people of Greater Manchester had spoken loud and clear and that the problems of congestion, pollution and lack of investment would not go away.

The main fissure between the two sides is on how to get the investment in. Cllrs Susan Williams (Con) and Dave Goddard (Lib Dem), the leaders of Trafford MBC and Stockport MBC respectively and the two leading voices against the charge, claim the government should just stump up the£1.5bn it had pledged regardless.

Lord Smith and Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese (Lab) dismiss that as wishful thinking and claim the onus is on the ‘No’ campaign to come up with alternative suggestions.

“We had a plan to deal with these issues, now we don’t,” Sir Richard said. “I would be quite delighted if the ‘No’ campaign came up with some answers other than knocking on Gordon Brown’s door.”

Birmingham?

So far, the government has insisted its Transport Innovation Fund is solely for those groups of councils willing to put in place some form of congestion management. However, in the ‘No’ campaign’s defence it is unlikely any other conurbation will now attempt to install a congestion charge.

Furthermore, if the Treasury is keen to bring forward capital spending in a bid to kick-start the economy, there is nowhere else - with the possible exception of the Birmingham city region - with as complete a wish-list of transport infrastructure projects.

A final word on Sir Richard. As arguably the most high-profile council leader outside London and the leading proponent of the congestion charge, he could have been forgiven for wanting to flee the cameras and microphones as soon as was decent.

He didn’t. As the film crews were packing up around him, he answered every question anyone cared to ask and was one of the last to leave the count.

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