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News - 7 December 2008

Will Manchester opt for congestion charging?

With less than a week to go before the vote closes on the world’s biggest proposed congestion charge, pressure is mounting from both sides of the debate. Other cities are watching to see how Manchester businesses respond.

The Forum of Private Business (FPB) is urging the people of Greater Manchester to vote ‘no’ while the the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) is driving the 'yes' campaign.

The AGMA stands to win £1.5 billion in Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) monies from the Government if people in at least seven of the region’s 10 local councils vote in favour of the charge. An additional £1.2 billion would have to be borrowed to administer the scheme, and to pay for the planned public transport work that is due to take place. It would be paid back from money levied from drivers using electronic tags on their windscreens.

The campaign has included highly-emotive billboard marketing, and a television advertisement taken off the air by Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, for being ‘directed towards a political end’. Despite these efforts, the FPB believes that the majority of business owners and members of the public are "deeply concerned" at the cost of the charge, which would be up to £5 per day for travelling through an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ ring surrounding the city. If given the green light, the scheme would be introduced in 2013 and the FBP believes it could seriously damage Greater Manchester’s economy.

The Manchester charge is being proposed by the ‘yes’ campaign as a solution to traffic congestion in the region. However, AGMA claim that their own figures show that traffic on local roads has not increased during the past 15 years. There are also no guarantees that the upper limit of the charge – or the size of the charging zones – would stay the same in the future.

Evidence from the London experience of congestion charging has also not been wholeheartedly positive with regard to reducing congestion (see previous stories in Knowledgebase)

The FPB is urging voters to consider the country’s only existing congestion charging scheme in London as a cautionary example citing the fact that two years after it was introduced the zone size doubled and charges rose by 60%. In the past week the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has announced that the western extension of the charge, introduced in 2007 by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, is to be abolished. Mr Johnson’s decision follows a vote in which 67% of residents – and 86% of businesses – said they wanted it scrapped.

The FPB is concerned at reports suggesting that many businesses and residents in the region have still not received their ballot papers. The deadline for the return of posted papers is 10pm on Thursday, 11 December. However, they can be deposited in special post boxes up to 10am the following day.

FPB member Tony Massey, of building services consultant engineers Gill Massey in Sale, believes many people are not fully aware of the impact a congestion charge would have on the region’s economy. "The congestion charge, with its vast area of coverage – the outer ring cost being higher than the inner ring of charging – is a thin disguise as a further tax on businesses and individuals,” said Mr Massey. “It will ultimately have a detrimental effect on the commercial viability of Manchester."

Recently, the ‘yes’ campaign argued that clearer roads would mean that small contractors would be able to ‘do more work’ each day to be able to pay for the charge but opponents see this as a weak case when stacked up against the many arguments against the charge.

In response to the AGMA, FPB member Martin Cocks, of Goalcroft Ltd in Leyland, Lancashire, said he would be forced to pass on the costs. “We do quite a lot of work in Manchester and, of course, we have to use the roads. If we were made to pay this charge, it would have to go on the job,” he said. “In any case, the hours you work in one location are generally dictated by the environment you’re working in.”

Andrew Ince, of Harrison Ince Ltd, a firm of architects based in Manchester city centre, fears that people will seek employment outside the congestion charging zone and businesses will be forced relocate to other sites. “The £5 cap per vehicle per day is going to have a massive financial impact on my business. I’m going to have to consider whether or not we stay in Manchester and I am concerned the congestion charge will also affect the value of our property,” he said. “There is no balance between the reduced congestion and the additional cost to my business.”

The Bacon Factory is a family bacon slicing firm in Bury, Lancashire. Its Managing Director, FPB member Chris Hardman, said that congestion charging could prove to be too costly, and disrupt the relationship between small firms, their customers and their suppliers.

“We don’t want it; it’s just another form of tax that is bound to be detrimental to businesses,” said Mr Hardman. “Customers and suppliers are going to try to avoid it at all costs, and they will want to operate outside normal business hours, so it will cost us more money in the long run, trying to accommodate them. It will also cause us problems with our own deliveries.”

His brother, Matt Hardman, added: “It could also drive consumers away from Manchester city centre towards other regions and out-of-town shopping centres – especially during normal operating hours, when the charges would apply. It could also force potential new businesses to avoid the city altogether.”


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