I'm not sure anyone will have been surprised by the result of the Manchester referendum on congestion charging, announced yesterday - except perhaps the Yes campaigners.
The result was a thumping 79% No across the 10 local authorities which make up Greater Manchester. The turnout was a very respectable 53%.
I have decidely mixed feelings about congestion charging. When Darlington first became a unitary authority back in 1997, and I was elected Chair of the new Highways and Transport Committee, I attended several seminars on transport policy around the country. These were aimed at professionals rather than members, and I learned an enormous amount from them.
One session which always stuck in my mind was research from Bristol which looked at what measures would actually persuade drivers to leave their cars and move to public transport. It also considered how the inexorable drift to car travel could be staunched.
It examined all the then known techniques - such as higher car parking charges, reduced car parking spaces, greater availability of public transport and the like. All of these approaches (and this was theoretical research following in-depth surveys rather than based on practical evidence) showed that whilst these measures could slow down the increase in the number of journeys made by car, none would reverse it. Only one step would do this - congestion charging. And this would have to be congestion charging across the city, and not just forming a cordon around the city centre.
Since then, of course, one city - London- has successfully implemented a congestion charge (I get grumpy and throw things at the TV when Durham's single toll road is described as congestion charging). To try and encourage the rest of the country, the Government has waved significant amounts of cash as highways authorities in the form of money to improve public transport, called TIF (Transport Innovation Fund).
And now this has been decisively rejected for the second time - Edinburgh had a similar poll in 2005, where the majority against was only slightly lower. The Manchester proposal had built into it significant improvements in public transport (the perceived poor quality of which drivers often say dissuades them from taking the bus) and still the vote was a big "No". So, what can we learn?
Firstly, I despair of any town, city or indeed conurbation voting yes. Take Darlington - I went on record repeatedly when Cabinet Member for Highways as saying that congestion charging would be wrong for Darlington. Even if Darlington were part of a wider bid with authorities in the Tees Valley, it would place us at a significant economic disadvantage compared to Durham City, Sunderland, Newcastle and York. Without a level playing field across the whole region, I cannot see how it would not hurt the Borough's economy.
Even then, however, I'm not sure that a Yes vote could be achieved. London's congestion charge was introduced after all on the back of Ken Livingstone's Mayoral victory, and not a city-wide poll. So, at the risk of being howled down for a lack of democratic principles, I believe that having referenda in advance of congestion charging has to be abandoned. Residents should be given the chance to see what effect road tolling has, for 6-12 months say, and then vote on the continuation of the scheme. At the moment, the fear of the unknown is killing any chance of progress.
Even then, I couldn't see a scheme simply for Darlington or the Tees Valley going ahead. It will require road pricing across the country. That of course will require huge investment in public transport across England when the Government's finances are already, ahem, hard-pressed.
Of course, since then Darlington has been at the forefront of a new approach - investing in public transport infrastructure whilst at the same time working intensively with residents to explain the transport choices they have. At a time of economic growth, it led to significant decrease in the number of car journeys, whilst walking and cycling in particular boomed.
So as we enter an economic downturn, with reduced traffic on our roads, and after this referendum result, don't expect to hear too much about road tolling as a national priority. The problems of congestion, especially in the big cities and on the major arterial motorways won't go away, however, but that may be for the next generation of transport planners and politicians to sort out.