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Infrastructure must not be left to a public referendum

The future of Mancheter's £3bn public transport revamp is at the mercy of a public vote next month. This is an ludicrous way to plan vital regeneration, argues NCE editor Antony Oliver

How is it that the future prosperity of
Manchester, one of the UK’s biggest and
most economically important cities, has been
left to the mercy of a public referendum? I’m
frankly baffled.
Given that the government has just signed
up to an unprecedented £3bn public infrastructure
investment package to kick start
the economy it is bizarre, to say the least,
that close to another £3bn of vital public
investment in Manchester will come down to
a yes-no vote over congestion charging.
It is a wholly ludicrous situation and one
that the civil engineering profession really
must kick back against.
Given what we know about the role that
public transport plays in driving growth and
regeneration; given what we know about the
role of public transport in cutting emissions
and reducing congestion; we surely cannot
sit by and let the forthcoming Manchester
referendum just happen.
As Manchester City Council chief executive
Sir Howard Bernstein pointed out last
week at Civils 2008, for Manchester it is all
or nothing – there is no plan B.
A “no vote” on 11 December doesn’t just
set back the city’s growth and regeneration
plans, it pretty much kills them dead. There
is no alternative in the short term – there
will be no £1.5bn TIF investment or another
£1.2bn of permitted borrowing.
Currently there is a very fi ne balance of
opinion – dangerously so. Polls estimate
that just 51.4% are in favour, a number that,
whilst in the right direction, surely indicates
that landslide backing is not on the cards.
However, my fear is that the vote risks
being hijacked by the anti-congestion
charging lobby. By playing on the public’s
fear that they will somehow be subjected to
swingeing new charges whenever they use
their cars in Manchester, it is highly conceivable
that the “no vote” will prevail.
This cannot be allowed to happen.
Investment in transport infrastructure is
far too important to be by such regressive,
one-dimensional thinking. Engineers must
mobilise right now to ensure that the right
message is put across and understood.
As we hurtle headlong towards a deep
nationwide recession, what Manchester
certainly does not need right now is
anything that hinders investment and puts a
block on future growth and prosperity. This
£3bn investment plan is vital.
For too long civil engineers have watched
bad political investment decisions then we’ve
struggled to pick up the pieces. But the new
post banking crisis world can’t aff ord that
any more.
We must now stand up and shout to
ensure that our views are heard. Manchester
must be the starting point.
Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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