The siege tactics of medieval warriors are being deployed against the introduction of the congestion charge in a major European city, argues transport journalist Max Glaskin.
The knights of old knew there were two ways into an “impregnable” castle - either scale the walls or undermine the defences until they crumble.
Today Manchester’s plans to cut congestion, by charging drivers for entering the centre, are suffering from both forms of attack. They threaten to destroy the integrity of a once-coherent scheme.
First, the honest aldermen came up with a straighforward idea of a couple of toll rings that would only operate during peak periods, like twin moats with drawbridges.
They had been lured into making this design by the promise of a big bag of gold scooped from the treasure chest of the monarch’s transport baron. The sole condition was that the precious metal would have to be spent on improving public transit.
But not everyone in this fair land was happy. Three of the 10 councils quickly objected. The chief of the regional association of local governments, the noble Lord Peter Smith, and his deputy, the brave knight Sir Richard Leese, eventually issued a proclamation saying that every citizen, be they squire, freeman or peasant, would get a vote on the issue.
A 12-week period of “consultation” has ensued, with all manner of missiles being lobbed over the battlements. Citizens, merchants and artisans clamored against the proposals to such an extent that the aldermen began to wobble in their defense.
Unused to such pitched battles, they refrained from pouring boiling oil on their assailants. Nor could they ignore the attacks, as Mayor Livingstone had done under similar circumstances in London Town just six years earlier, because they were a mixed bunch who feared for their status.
With objectors now scaling the walls and all too willing to unsheath their broadswords, the defenders effectively changed sides and started hacking away at the foundations of their own castle. “Don’t worry,” they cried to the aggressive merchants, “We’ll exempt your covered wagons from the toll for a full twelvemonth.”
“And have no fear, fine artisans who toil in the area known as Trafford, for we shall impose no charges upon your daily journeys until the baron’s gold has been turned into a glistening tramline that extends into the heart of your settlement.”
All will place their marks on the ballot sheets in December. However, even if enough vote in favour of the undermined scheme, the aldermen may have given away far too much for their remaining designs to be effective.
A charge worth having?
The noble city may find that, with so many concessions having been granted, congestion and air quality may not be improved at all. What’s more, now that the objectors have the aldermen at their mercy, what further exemptions will they demand?
Heroic words and deeds have been witnessed in this tale, as have desperate acts of pragmatism. The exhausted aldermen of Manchester know that without the bag of gold from the transport baron, their city will get no significant public transport boost. Unfortunately, the sparkling new buses and trams could be stuck in the same dirty old jams.
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