You’ve read about protection rackets many times. In Palermo, for example, it is estimated that over half of the city’s businesses are owned by, or have connections to, the Mafia. Back in the Spring of 2006 students and business owners in the city rallied against the ‘pizzo’ - money paid by shopkeepers to the Mafia to ensure that their businesses do not ‘accidentally’ catch fire in the dead of night. In short, you pay a dividend to the Mafia, and they ensure your daily well-being.
A new form of ‘pizzo’ could be in the pipeline for a very different city to Palermo. Two thousand miles north west of Palermo is Manchester: a city where the Mafia is embodied by the local authorities; and the ‘pizzo’ is represented by a potential blackmailing scheme of expensive proportions. Like the Mafia, the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities will guarantee the well-being of its targeted groups, but only if a ‘pizzo’ – in the form of a £5 congestion charge - is voted via a county-wide ballot into operation. Otherwise Manchester and its metropolitan area (the third largest in the UK with a population of 2.5 million) will have to suffer substandard public transport for the indefinite future.
Were it not for the spinning of government propaganda, such a blatant attempt to screw money from the public would be called a ‘protection racket’. In this instance the ‘Yes’ lobby actually pretend that they are trying to do you a favour! Some £3 billion has been earmarked for buses, trains and trams. However, should the electorate of Greater Manchester say ‘No’ (as I hope they will), the offer will be taken off the table.
What is so appalling about this congestion charge scheme is not only its cost to the motorist, but its geographical extent. Unlike London’s system, which principally includes what most of us would regard as the centre of the capital, the project envisaged for Manchester will cover the entire area enveloped by the M60 orbital motorway. This effectively means that people who do not wish to avail of shopping facilities in Manchester city centre will still have to pay to access neighbouring towns such as Salford, Swinton and Stretford, where the Trafford Centre is located. To put this into a London perspective, it would akin to extending the charge there to cover Croydon, Kingston, Hounslow and Waltham Forest.
There are 10 local authorities in the Greater Manchester area. These are Bolton, Bury, City of Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan. The Conservative-run councils (Bury and Trafford) have always been against the introduction of the charge, as has Stockport (Liberal Democrat). However, the remaining seven councils (including four where the Labour vote is weighed in tonnage rather than counted) have all strongly backed the proposal.
However much I wish for improved public transport, I detest blackmail. Less than a sixth of the money paid in road tax is ploughed back into the transport infrastructure of this country. What of the ever-spiralling Council Tax? Don’t the various governmental bodies in Britain already have enough money torn from the clutches of their respective citizens without resorting to unashamed bribery? Make no mistake, if the people are foolish enough to endorse this proposal it will give a green light to the progressive introduction of comparable schemes in other British cities. Lenin talked of ‘useful fools’. Let’s hope Mancunians and their immediate neighbours do not become the latest incarnation of that aphorism.