Congestion charge? Bloody hell!

FORGET the Manchester derby. Sir Alex Ferguson has waded into Manchester’s most heated cross-city battle in years. Fergie has come out in favour of a Greater Manchester congestion charge. And it’s caused a bit of a storm.

If you live outside the Manchester area, this story may have passed you by. But in and around the city, we’re talking of little else at the moment.

In brief: Greater Manchester is made up of 10 councils. Those councils are bidding for more than £2.75bn of Government money from the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF). The idea is to fund major public transport improvements across Greater Manchester, and to introduce a weekday, peak-time congestion charge for motorists. (If you want to know all the details, www.gmfuturetransport.co.uk is the best place to start.)

It’s a very emotive issue: There are good arguments for and against the charge, and there’s been a fair amount of mud slinging on both sides.

Greater Manchester residents are being balloted now, and the result – yes or no – will be known at the end of next week.

All the indications are that it’s going to be very close. And so Sir Alex did his bit for the ‘yes’ campaign this week by writing a letter in support of the charge to the Manchester Evening News.

He wrote: “The TIF proposals offer a once in a lifetime opportunity to put Greater Manchester in the premier league for public transport – so don’t score an own goal – VOTE YES for safe, fast and convenient match-day travel and make sure all Greater Manchester people get the public transport they need and deserve.”

Ferguson went to great lengths in the letter not to refer specifically to Manchester United. No matter. The letter has still wound up football fans of all persuasions. As a result, the TIF proposals are not just a transport issue, or even a political issue. Now it’s a football issue as well.

“Having read Sir Alex Ferguson’s letter urging people to vote for the c-charge, I’d like to ask if I can change my vote,” wrote PG from Moston in today’s M.E.N. postbag.

“I based my ‘no’ vote on the view that the charge was a bad deal for people living and working in Manchester and surrounding districts.

“But, having read his letter, I realised that I was being selfish in not considering the public transport needs of thousands of United fans flying in from Singapore, Malta, Ireland and Scandinavia, as well as those Cockney Reds coming up on the train.”

Other correspondents argue that Ferguson has no right to wade into the debate, given that he lives in Cheshire – and is thus ineligible to vote.

“I am a diehard Red but I am appalled that he has supported the ‘yes’ vote, when he is not even eligible to vote,” wrote Outraged of Swinton (not their real name) in today’s M.E.N. postbag.

I don’t know whose idea it was to have Ferguson come out in support of the proposals. It may even have been Ferguson himself. But I can’t help but wonder if the suggestion came from London.

It certainly seems to have come from someone oblivious to the fact that quite a large section of the Manchester public have no time for Ferguson whatsoever. They’re called Manchester City fans.

Ferguson is a lifelong Labour supporter, and someone who certainly has the ear of the Labour Government. He is a close friend of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications. The Government, I think it is fair to say, would like to see the TIF proposals accepted by the Greater Manchester public.

Put those facts together, and you can begin to understand how Ferguson has come to publicly support the campaign to approve the charge.

But was it a good idea? Or an own goal?

“Thanks for boosting the anti-charge vote,” wrote Carol Tweedale, of Alkrington, in today’s M.E.N. postbag. “Every City fan will now vote a resounding ‘no’.”

If there’s one saving grace for the ‘yes’ campaign, it’s this: Two days after Ferguson’s letter was published, large parts of Manchester were brought to a standstill as the road network struggled to cope with City and United playing at home on the same night.

Ferguson would cite that as proof that a ‘yes’ vote is crucial. Whether that will persuade City fans to agree with him is another matter.

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