Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Some very big questions for Manchester

These are very important days for the future of Manchester.

There's a raging debate about road charging, which is not a debate at all. The local council chiefs say they want a discussion, but they slam anyone who raises sensible questions as naive, or prepostorous or unhelpful.

This comes on top of lots of hyperbole about the city being a world class urban centre. Martyn Markland from Atis Real did a superb presentation today on the subject.

Here's a flavour:

In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, Manchester needs to drastically improve itself and set ever more ambitious targets; otherwise it will simply lag behind. Worse still, if it doesn’t solve fundamental issues such as public transport, it could even hit reverse gear. Indeed, I would argue that as time goes by, the task of realising a long term vision becomes increasingly difficult as new resources are wasted on short term fixes.

A link to Martyn's blog with the full speech is here.

Meanwhile, I've written a lead column on the current stories in the Manchester Evening News about the poor quality debate around the transport proposals. The link to the MEN stuff is here.
This is what will be in Insider when it comes out next week:

When a ruthless property development company, Peel Holdings, run by a secretive tycoon from his offshore tax haven calls for the councils of Manchester to sell their interests in regional airports, the words of Mandy Rice-Davies, a prostitute, spring to mind: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

At long last there is an opportunity to have a mature debate about public transport and the public funding of it. But it is also the time for all of the parties in this debate to declare their interest. Otherwise the whole discussion will descend into farce. Manchester, and here is the irony, will end up sounding like Liverpool.

It is right that the subject that no one wants to talk about should be aired. It has become like the elephant in the living room, or the fact that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes. The North West has this unique critical asset - Manchester International Airport - that has given the region a crucial advantage. It is anachronistic that it remains in public hands, but its sale has just not ever been considered. When Insider raised the issue in 2006, we were told, quietly, that we were being “unhelpful”.

Equally, the property industry supporters of Manchester City Council have been forthright in their applause for the “courage” of the council in starting a debate. But what exactly are we supposed to be debating? That public transport needs improving? Well, yes, it does. That road charging at peak times will suppress demand, maybe it will. But that Manchester’s businesses will be more competitive because they are taxed in a way that other cities are not? I doubt it.

Other cities, like Birmingham and Leeds, may well be bidding for this transport fund. They could possibly be considering a road charging scheme. That is their choice. Manchester’s choice is different, and it is this: should the airport be sold to the private sector in order to fund transport projects; or should all attempts to sell the family silver be resisted because there are real benefits to owning such an asset. That is a debate. What we have been asked to consider so far, is not.

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