Mark speaking out against the Greater Manchester Congestion Charge

July 1, 2008 11:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) on securing it. She spoke eloquently and knowledgably, and I agree with pretty much everything she said.

I should like briefly to make clear my own view about congestion charging schemes before discussing the consultation on which the debate is focused. I accept that there is a good case to be made for a national congestion charging scheme. Such a scheme will be in place probably within 15 or 20 years, at least on our motorways and trunk roads. However, it is difficult to overestimate-I choose my words carefully-the seething resentment in some parts of the Greater Manchester conurbation about being used as a laboratory experiment in respect of this scheme.

My contention is that this particular scheme, not road charging generally, is fundamentally flawed. I say that because its success depends pretty much on the number of cars travelling in and out of the city centre continuing at the same level. If the scheme is successful in deterring motorists from travelling in and out of the city at peak times, which is what it is supposed to do, it will mean that less revenue is raised to go towards the promised public transport investments. It cannot work, because if the scheme is successful in discouraging motorists from using their cars to get in and out of town, less revenue will be raised and there will be less money for the promised public transport improvements. The scheme depends on motorists continuing to drive in and out of the city centre at the same rate.

A cornerstone of the case for the congestion charging scheme appears to be the suggestion that is being developed for a referendum. I want to focus particularly on why that is not necessarily the right way forward and why I am certainly not persuaded that it is the best way of going about things. Incidentally, I have no doubt that if a referendum is to happen, the scheme will go down and I will oppose the idea of holding a referendum because it is not the right way forward. I say that clearly, because the premise on which the question is based in a referendum will be different depending on where people live.

If people live in the inner ring around Manchester, wherever that line is finally drawn, why would they not vote for the proposed scheme-the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) might want to add something on this later-because they will get pretty much all the benefits at none of the cost? Those in the inner ring will not pay at all to travel into and out of the city centre. Because of the way the rings will work, most of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), who will live between the first and second rings, will be asked to pay once to travel into the city centre, and they may think that that is a price worth paying for the promised improvements. However, my constituents in Cheadle, whom I have the privilege of representing, and the vast majority of people in Stockport borough will be paying twice. So the premise is not the same. I can understand why people in the city centre might vote for the scheme, but people outside the second ring will be asked to pay twice. What makes it even more invidious is that the people in Stockport borough will not get the promised public transport improvements-not in the foreseeable future, anyway.

My other key point is that all of this is premised on the Government's saying, "If you accept this scheme, more money will be made available for public transport." We would all welcome more investment in public transport; we all know that it needs it. However, hon. Members' first duty is to represent the interests of the people who elect us to Parliament. Ask anybody in Stockport and they will say that the talk about promised extensions of the Metrolink system to Stockport town centre has been going on for years. I was previously leader of Stockport council and I am a former member of the passenger transport authority in Greater Manchester. The Metrolink scheme has always been developed on the basis that, eventually, we would all benefit from it. I have to say to the Minister that some of us are still waiting. We are no closer to the extension of the Metrolink system to Stockport and this consultation will not bring it any closer.

There is also an issue in my constituency, which affects the whole south side of Greater Manchester, about completing the A555 relief road. I know that the Minister is well aware of the compelling case that we have made, on a number of occasions, for that project to be given the go-ahead. However, without confirmation that we are going to get a Metrolink extension to Stockport and that the A555 road scheme will go ahead, the people in Stockport are being asked by the Government to take too much on trust. The Government have fully used their reservoir of good will for these ideas in my area.

Three of the 10 Greater Manchester authorities are already on the record as opposing the scheme. I am not sure of the current status of the proposed referendum in Bolton, but it is likely that a fourth will come out against the scheme. My key question to the Minister is how on earth will such a scheme be imposed on Greater Manchester residents on the basis that certainly three and perhaps four of its 10 authorities will not want to co-operate?

I hope that the Minister will address those genuine concerns in her response. I understand why, in some cases, the scheme may make sense for some hon. Members and that they will want to support it, but I am afraid that many of us can see no tangible benefit for our constituents. The constituents whom I have the privilege of representing will be asked to pay twice to get in and out of the city centre with no corresponding increase or improvement in public transport. If we end up with a conurbation-wide referendum, it will be without my support.

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