The results of Manchester's referendum on congestion charging and improvements to public transport are in, and they could hardly be clearer. According to the Guardian, 79% of respondents said no, on the back of a 53% turnout. That's close to a general election level of turnout around here. Although the Yes campaign claimed that 9 out of 10 people would not pay the charge, around 4 out of 10 people decided that they didn't want it.
I have distinctly mixed feelings about this. Mostly, I'm disappointed; after all, I did vote yes myself. That's easy for me: I don't own a car, walk to work, and rely on public transport to get around Greater Manchester. The congestion charge would cost me precisely nothing. According to the No campaign, it would work out at £1200 a year for those who would have to pay the maximum amount. It's clearly a regressive tax, and that is not a small amount of money for people who are already struggling to make ends meet. Of course, that's the point: the charge wouldn't work if everyone could easily afford it.
For me, the most important thing about the proposals was the improvements to public transport. There is no doubt that these are needed. Some of them, such as extensions of the Metrolink tram system to Oldham and Rochdale, will happen anyway. But I suspect we will be stuck with an unreliable and expensive (deregulated) bus service for a long time to come.
The problem is that, in the words of the Yes campaign, "there is no plan B". That being the case, it seems crazy to put the question to a referendum. Saying that you either agree with these proposals or you get nothing is hardly a democratic way of posing a referendum question; it's a pretense of democracy. It would have been more sensible, and democratic, to either have our local representatives on the Manchester Council decide to implement the proposals come what may, or have a referendum in which there was a genuine choice of competing proposals.
Improvements in public transport are a good thing, but on their own they will not reduce car use. Driving will always be more convenient than taking the bus, unless there are clear disincentives for car use. It seems that congestion charging is a political impossibility in Manchester, at least right now. An alternative might be to make driving in the city less convenient, by restricting parking, restricting access to certain streets, etc. This would have the advantage of not stinging the poor with another regressive tax. What is clear is that doing nothing is not an option in the long term: it's back to the drawing board for Manchester's transport policy.