On the 11 December Greater Manchester will vote on a package of government funding for transport that is dependent on the introduction of congestion charging over a wide area of 80 square miles around the centre of Manchester. To win, there needs to be a majority for the proposals in seven of the 10 GM boroughs. This may be helped by the fact that the referendum question does not mention the charge.
The £3.7 billion funding consists of a £1.5 billion grant and a £1.2 billion loan, which is intended to be repaid by means of the congestion charge. The rush hour charge could cost a motorist up to £5 a day to go to work in the city. In exchange, the local authorities promise three new tram lines, more frequent buses, various improvements to stations and roads, school buses and more peak hour seats on trains.
Not all this is really new money though. The government promised to build the new tram lines over 10 years ago and then cut the funding. Still the government hopes that by blackmailing Greater Manchester into accepting congestion charging it can create a precedent for the rolling out of road tolls or congestion charges elsewhere.
The referendum has split both business and the left. In the “Yes” camp are Labour controlled councils, Greens and Friends of the Earth, that section of business that has profited from the ‘regeneration’ of Manchester and believes that “Greater Manchester needs a total transport revolution if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace”, and last but not least the current private near-monopoly operators of buses and trams. They are spending £2 million on a propaganda campaign, which makes much of the beneficial environmental effects of the switch to public transport they hope will occur.
However, there have recently been concessions to the road lobby so that there will be a “one-year, 100% discount for all delivery vehicles over 3.5 tonnes while we test the impact of congestion charging on business transport costs (in partnership with the Road Haulage Association)”. Further concessions are likely to those business lobbies that make enough fuss about the impact on their profits.
On the “No” side are the Tories, various anti-tax and motoring lobbies, petrol station owners, people living in areas like Wigan that will get little benefit from the new investment, some of the left particularly Respect (Renewal), smaller businesses and those like the Trafford Centre who are located inside the charging zone and dependent on cars for customers. The anti-charge Momentum campaign advocates that the investment should be paid for by the privatisation of Manchester airport.
What attitude should socialists take? Firstly, we should oppose the congestion charge as a regressive tax that hits the less well off and is unlikely to move those who are well off out of their cars. (In a splurge of generosity, the proposals include a 20% deduction on the charge for those on the minimum wage – this is purely cosmetic.) This is also a move to shift transport infrastructure out of the sphere of public services paid for by general taxation to make it something that has to be financed specifically by extra taxation and borrowing.
Secondly, the impact of the charge depends on the cost and quality of alternative public transport. Current fare levels are very high and there is no clear indication of how they would be controlled after the charge is introduced. More fundamentally, as long as buses and trains are privately owned, there is no public control over fares or service levels and public subsidies go to boost private profits.
The government’s current plans to re-regulate buses outside London have loopholes for controlling fares and services where “it would not be commercially viable for that operator…to provide services to the standard specified.” In other words, profitability is a valid reason for high fares and bad services. Taking transport back into public ownership is then a pre-condition for an adequate and affordable transport system.
Despite my objections to the charge, I do not believe that socialists can simply line up with the “No” campaign in the referendum and vote against. While there are left elements arguing for a “No” vote, the overwhelming dynamic of the campaign is reactionary opposition to tax rises regardless of who pays. They are not proposing an alternative positive policy for the environment and transport that we should support.
Rather, faced with the choice in the referendum we have no alternative but to abstain and start building a campaign for such a policy. That is why we are participating in the Campaign for Free Transport, set up to fight for "an expanded public transport system that is fully integrated, publicly owned and free at the point of use." This is the only policy that can guarantee environmental improvements through a decent public transport system and is in the interests of workers in Greater Manchester.
Within a few weeks, the Campaign has collected nearly 1,000 signatures on a petition and is planning a rally on 2 December at 5pm in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.