Sunday, 16 November 2008

Tif and the Charge - the Debate heats up

I thought it wouldn't be long before I returned to this topic. I am referring of course to the impending referendum on the TiF bid for transport funding and the linked congestion charge proposal. As ballot papers are due to go out very shortly and the deadline for voting is 11th December, the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns are engaged in all-out battle.
This was evidenced at a debate last Thursday organised by the South Manchester Reporter, in which I took part. An audience of around 180 took part, with a panel consisting of Lis Phelan (Chair of the yes campaign)and Andrew Simpson (of Peel Holdings and the yes campaign's favourite pantomime villain) plus representatives of the four main political Parties in the area (yes, four) as a supporting cast.

Clearly both Lis and Andrew have done a number of these events and now present their respective cases with the slickness of professional politicians. A vote was taken of the audience before and after - the pre-vote was 44 in favour (of the bid) and 57 against; the vote at the end was 74 in favour and 80 against. To me this this all suggests that opinion is pretty evenly divided (at least amingst people who attend public meetings) and is pretty entrenched on both sides.

Of the 4 Party representatives, there were 3 in support (Labour, Lib Dem and me for the Greens) and 1 against (the Tory). Manchester Lib Dems have clearly come off the fence now; actually I shouldn't be too hard on them as we Greens have also had internal differences of opinion on this. I have to say that, just as the devil seems to have all the best tunes, it is more fun to argue against the many flaws in the whole package than to argue in favour. The pragmatic argument in favour wins out for me however, and seeing some of the bedfellows one would have in the 'no' campaign, reassures me that I am in the right place.

Unsurprisingly there were many 'questions' from the floor; of course these were mostly comments, although there were some definite questions along the lines of 'where are you lot getting your funding from?' (on both sides). Arguments raged over the numbers of people who would pay and the use of the word 'zone'. Fortunately climate change and other environmental issues did get a good look-in (they haven't always in previous debates).

Interaction between audience and panel was fast and furious; I was at the end of the row and being a naturally polite person was reluctant to interrupt; at one point I confiscated a microphone to ensure I could get my turn. The 'debate' was billed to end at 9 pm, but continued till 9.20 and the time seemed to pass in an instant.

It is hard to overestimate the significance of the coming referendum; people all around the country are looking to Manchester to see what happens. Not just in this country too - apparently no less a person than Barack Obama is showing an interest. A referendum is unusual in itself - last time I remember being able to take part in one was for the Common Market (as it was then called) in the 70s.

I also think it is important to see this bid as only one of a number of changes which will be needed in Greater Manchester to reach a sustainable low-carbon future.

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