Thursday, December 11, 2008


Greater Manchester Referendum Shock: Stealth Dances Naked on a Harpsichord

Sometimes I really miss living up near Manchester. Deciding between which friends and family to live near, between seeing the Thames just outside or a distant Kinder Scout from the end of the road… And between a settled congestion charge and one that’s the height of controversy. If I still lived up there, my instinct would be to vote ‘Yes’, unlike most Liberal Democrats (split across the area, but tilting no) and, I suspect, most residents: my hunch is there’ll be a ‘No’ vote. Up there a fortnight ago, though, one ‘No’ argument angered me as a really stupid lie.
“Baldrick, you wouldn’t see a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on top of a harpsichord, singing ‘Subtle plans are here again’.”
The referendum today is to decide on a proposed immense congestion charging area stretching right across Greater Manchester, with the sweetener of massive investment in public transport. The charge would only apply to drivers at peak times, making it more limited than the London charge, and the government’s offered a £3 billion incentive to kick off the public transport improvements, though a lot of the rest will come from long-term borrowing to make sure investment is in place (rightly) to make buses, trains and extended trams a better alternative before the charge kicks in to persuade people out of their cars.

I’ve not been following the congestion charge as closely as I should, but I’ve chatted to a few Liberal Democrats I know about the area, along with friends and family when I was up there last – and I read the papers, and saw the well-funded ‘No’ posters on every bill hoarding as I went past on the ‘Yes’-plastered bus on the morning nightmare of the traffic-clogged A6. It’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m instinctively for a ‘Yes’; it’d be a gross generalisation to say that drivers will be voting ‘No’ and those of us on public transport want ‘Yes’, but that’s both my instinctual and (almost equally unscientific) anecdotal finding. I don’t know the breakdown of different road users, but my bet’s on a ‘No’ for two very simple, interlinked reasons: the ‘No’ posters had one, very simple, not completely honest message, screaming that everyone would pay £1,200 more tax (and that this was the one tax you could say no to); and that, in a recession and with an unpopular Labour Government backing the referendum, people are unlikely to say yes both to a perceived tax hike and to Labour.

My instinct’s still to say ‘Yes’, though. Traffic’s been jammed solid along the A6 for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, fitter and about half my present weight, despite my natural indolence I’d frequently make a twenty-odd-minute run into Stockport, not just because it was cheaper but because in rush hour, it was frequently faster (if sweatier). I’ve never driven, but it’s not as if drivers are immune to traffic jams, nor the cost of them, in time and money; in 1992, when the Liberal Democrats were unique in UK political parties in coming up with the idea of congestion charges, our transport policies cited CBI figures that congestion cost business upwards of £20 billion a year. Both the cost and the queues have only got larger (much larger) in the last two decades.

So how come, then, that – for example – Manchester Lib Dems are split down the middle, Stockport and Bury dead against, and Rochdale Lib Dems are lonely ‘Yes’ campaigners? Surely something Lib Dems have been calling for for so long can’t just be opposed by all the Lib Dems it concerns because of nimbyism? Well, up to a point. I can’t help but feel cynical that, as with so many other green measures, excuses can always be found by members of a green party to make just this one the exception (and the previous one, and the next one)… But, from taking a look at the plans, of course the other parties are also split – well, Labour at least, as the ‘Vote Blue, Go Grey’ Conservatives have never in history backed an environmental measure until it was absolutely too late to stop it – and it’s no wonder. A lot of it’s to do with the different local effects; my old friend Iain Roberts points out that the charge offers almost no public transport improvements to the East and South of Greater Manchester, while its park-and-ride schemes mean such areas may actually get more traffic, and it’s pretty rare that I disagree with him, so he gave me pause for thought. It’s not just about the money, then – it’s that the scheme appears to have been inequitably designed, possibly imposed from on high, with very little to persuade some (coincidentally non-Labour-voting) areas to ‘buy in’. And, yes, I have endless but weary faith in the ability of the Labour Government to take a great idea and completely bugger it up.

I’m still a bit cynical. Wait until the perfect scheme to demonstrate your green credentials, and you can comfortably wait forever. But I accept that the scheme could be a lot better. There is, however, one ‘No’ argument that I saw around a lot a fortnight ago that really did get on my wick. Hello, then, to Bury Lib Dem Councillor Richard Baum, which makes me feel a little guilty. Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated (which I’m disappointed to say has illustrated that there’s very little debate about this issue in the Lib Dem blogosphere) has quite a few local-driven blogs, essentially extended interactive FOCUS leaflets, and they tend to be dull as ditchwater if you don’t live in their area. I feel guilty having a go at Cllr Baum, though, because his is one of the few of that variety of blog which I actually read; he’s a good writer, informative, self-deprecating, funny, and I enjoy his writing despite my only remembering going to Bury two or three times in my life. And I’ve never met him, but he comes across as a very nice chap. So apologies, Richard, because one of your many articles on the congestion charge swallows whole the daftest, stupidest lie from the ‘No’ campaign, and the one that really had me seething when I saw it on the bus (that I was in a traffic jam on the way to the dentist may have had something to do with my ill humour).

If This Is Your Idea of Stealth, Never Join the Commandos Or You Will Die

It’s all very well to be against tax rises. As I’ve said, I think you really need to take in all the other costs, too, but it’s a reasonable position to take. It’s all very well to be against local tax rises because you think people in your area can’t pay more, though it’s more than disingenuous to say that “the government” should pay it all because, shock, the government’s tax base is you and me, too, and with central government already controlling more than three-quarters of all local spending, frankly it’s well past time for more local responsibility. It’s all very well to criticise a tax for not being progressive, but really, aside from income tax, every other tax going is at best very clumsily progressive or usually takes no account of your circumstances. And the Lib Dems are the party that wants the lowest income tax rates, after about three decades of all parties slipping taxes away from direct income tax and to other ways of revenue-raising.

But, here’s the catch. From the Tories doubling VAT when Mrs Thatcher took office, despite promising they wouldn’t, all the way through to Gordon Brown’s hundreds of little dodges and wheezes, though the overall tax take as a percentage of GDP hasn’t changed very much, the way taxes are raised has changed enormously. It’s become massively more complex, and it’s shifted hugely from direct to indirect taxation. There are good reasons to make some of that shift: making work pay you more by letting you keep more of the money you work for, versus raising taxes on pollution, which we want to discourage, for example. But no-one can be kidded that that’s why we’ve seen the changes we have. Green taxes have been a microscopic part of the leverage towards indirect taxation. No. It’s much simpler than that. Since 1979, both Conservative and Labour Governments have cut income tax rates and raised taxes in hundreds of tiny fiddly ways because they want to look generous. They want to keep the same money coming in, but win votes by lowering the taxes it’s easy to see – because they come straight out of your pay packet – and raising all the ones it’s hard to spot. And, after a while, this constant sleight of hand trickery by both Labour and Conservative to give money with one hand and take it away with the other became so well-known that it got its own name. All the hundreds of complex, fiddly, near-invisible revenue-raising dodges are no simply called ‘stealth taxes’.

And then the ‘No’ vote to this Greater Manchester congestion charge got on this bandwagon by saying that a ‘No’ vote is ‘No to another stealth tax’.

Excuse me?!

Be against a congestion charge if you like. But a tax that’s had months of public consultation – a tax that will be taken from you directly – a tax that will have big signs up saying where you pay it (I live in London; they’re impossible to miss) – a tax that every party and paper has debated endlessly, not on discovering something in the small print of the Chancellor’s statement but for months in advance – a tax that, unlike every tax rise or cut in every General Election in British history will be the sole subject of a direct vote by the people concerned…

This is a tax that will only be paid by people who know exactly what they’re doing, and will only be enacted if a vote in which millions of voters get to have a say, and a say directly on that one charge, without the complications of party loyalty that made a nonsense of the claim that an election can be a ‘referendum’ on anything. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and people can’t say they weren’t warned. Of any tax in the history of Britain, this has had among the most comprehensive discussions, and has had the single largest and most direct vote on it, without exception, in the history of this country.

“Stealth” is a word which means precisely the opposite of what’s happening today in Greater Manchester. Much of the time when it’s used about taxation it’s effectively a synonym for ‘indirect’, and ‘indirect’ is effectively a synonym for ‘not income tax’… But that’s the thing about words that usually mean the same. They’re still different words, and sometimes this becomes quite stunningly obvious. Like when you’re doing ‘Replace All’ because you’d thought, say, that Mr P Allen was Mr Peter Allen rather than Mr Philip Allen, and when you make a hasty correction you find that elsewhere in your document you’ve now described something that’s fading away as ‘philiping out’. So on seeing so much ‘No’ propaganda attacking this “stealth tax”, both my politician’s and my pedant’s instincts were outraged.

Only three questions remain. Are the ‘No’ campaign really incredible liars? Or are they really incredibly thick? Or, if this is a stealth tax… Can anyone tell me what the fuck an obvious one would look like?

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I live in Manchester and, somewhat like you, I want to support the congestion charge.

There are a few good reasons why I can't easily do that:

1) The conditional offer of public transport expenditure rubs me up the wrong way. It was presented as central government largesse to be showered upon the grateful locals if they voted the 'right' way. For some reason, someone imagined that this would be more persuasive than pitching it as 'reinvestment' of the proceeds of the charge. This kind of stupidity needs to be discouraged.

2) There are two charging zones and I live just outside the outer zone. I know it shouldn't bother me, but knowing that living a few hundred yards away makes the difference between paying and not paying annoys me. Perhaps I could just park my car inside the zone somewhere and walk home? I seriously wonder if people might start doing this.

3) Work, for me, is inside the outer zone, but not the inner zone. However, my current fastest and most direct route takes me into the inner zone temporarily (along the Mancunian Way, which I have never seen congested). This charging scheme means that it would be cheaper for me to go out on to the M60 (the ring road) and drive about half-way around Manchester then cut back in (going from J10 to around J22). This is a longer and frequently more congested route (bearing in mind that many of the people using it are just trying to get across to Yorkshire on the M62). It's also a much less fuel-efficient route. Any scheme that incentivises me to do this further deserves discouragement.

4) The propaganda/advertising for the charge has been awful. Until very recently, most of the advertising has focussed on why most people won't pay it - there was a slogan something like "9 out of 10 people won't pay the charge when travelling into the city". This creates a lot of confusion about who will pay, and makes the poor sods who are paying feel a lot less inclined to see it as being for the "greater good". If there is any justification for the "stealth tax" accusation, it is that the 'yes' campaign have done a lot to muddy the waters about who will pay.

5) It's too expensive! It will cost me something like £1200 per year, which is, in my opinion, out of all proportion. I'm in favour of charging on the basis that it will discourage road use at the margins, but there's no need to go this far.

6) The proposed public transport expansions don't really help me. If I thought that there would be an Oyster card-style approach where I knew that I could get from my front door to work without having to pay separately for the bus, trains or trams I use in the process, without this costing more than driving, I might be persuaded. Right now, public transport is a hell of a lot more expensive than driving, and also slower, and the new plans don't address this fully. There's some vague guff about cheaper bus fares, but it's nowhere near comprehensive enough.

7) I have little faith in public transport administration. The Manchester rail timetables have been inaccurate for me a few times in the last year. They once had to pay for a taxi for me after I complained that the train I was counting on getting home didn't actually exist, despite the timetable's claim to the contrary (though I had to wait a good 45 minutes for the approval of this to be phoned through). I'm wary of public transport being the only option for getting around and I like having the option of signaling my dim view of their service by not using it. Although I'd still technically have that option with the charge, the marginal cost of exercising it is increased.

So, from a starting point of wanting to like the idea, I wind up concluding that it's a cack-handed mess, although that's not entirely unexpected for something that has been developed by a Labour government and an assortment of Labour councils.
I didn't vote, because I am absolutely in favour of a congestion charge, but absolutely against the way it will be implemented (using automatic number plate recognition cameras, which seems to me to be far too invasive a method of enforcement). I simply couldn't decide if my green views outweighed my civil libertarian views, and so decided to sit it out...
I'd also add that people in London and the South East of England have a completely distorted view of what public transport actually is in most of the UK (appreciating Alex has a foot in both camps). Here is Belfast, our public monopoly public transport provider delivers a reasonable service if you want to travel from the inner city or inner suburbs into the city centre by bus, or from further afield by train if you happen to live near one of the few train lines.

If you don't work in the city centre: tough. If your journey could be made more efficiently by combining bus and train services, all of which are operated by the same company: tough. If you work unsocial hours: tough. If the bus is late, and it is, like today, about 3 degrees and rainy: tough. Travelling 8 miles from Belfast Castle, near which I live, to Stormont work, where I work, takes 25 minutes to drive in the absolute worst of the rush hour, but 1 hour 15 minutes as a minimum by bus - entirely within the City of Belfast. Guess which option I take?

If there was any real honesty in the intentions of GMPTE and Labour, the 3 billion would be put into public transport first, and the congestion charge would follow later. Frankly, I don't blame the people of Greater Manchester for refusing to buy yet another gold coated promise with no up-front delivery.

Spending money on public transport in a big city is a basic public good and shouldn't be used as an attempt to bribe voters!
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