LABOUR in Bury have broken ranks and demanded a referendum on the controversial congestion charge.
They say they have serious concerns about how the scheme is being pushed through, and have called on civic leaders to give the Greater Manchester public a vote.
"We do not feel that a survey of 5,000 residents and 1,000 businesses is adequate for a population of two and a half million," said Councillor Wayne Campbell, who has asked council leader Bob Bibby to support his call.
"With something as big as this, the public should be given their say, and they are not getting that through their elected members at the moment."
Tory-controlled Bury was one of eight councils in Greater Manchester - mostly Labour - to submit a bid for TIF (Transport Innovation Fund) money. This would provide £3 billion to spend on public transport across the conurbation, but impose a congestion charge to raise 60 per cent of the money.
Only Trafford and Stockport voted against submitting a bid, after carrying out local polls which showed public opposition to the plan. This is in contrast to the "official" survey which said that a majority of residents and businesses were in favour.
Coun Campbell accused Bury's Tory leadership of saying one thing and doing another: by voting the submit the TIF bid, while telling residents they opposed congestion charging.
"We're not being given the chance to have a proper debate about it," he said, "and a leaflet sent to each household is not a reasoned debate.
"The original discussion was not about a ring road but to deal with congestion across Greater Manchester. Just putting a ring around Manchester does not cure congestion.
"To do nothing is not an option, but we have to encourage people back on to public transport, rather than just penalising them back on to it.
"We were told that the scheme had to meet certain conditions and one of those was public support - I think a referendum is key to that."
Coun Campbell said he would follow the public's wishes, but urged against instinctive opposition to the charge. "We cannot just be simply against it, but be prepared to debate the consequences of being against it. However, it's only when the public has been fully engaged that we should come to a decision."
Lib Dem councillor Andrew Garner, Bury's representative on the Passenger Transport Authority, dismissed Labour's move as "too little, too late".
"Why didn't Labour support our motion at full council calling for Bury to reject the TIF bid in its present form?" he said. "We could have forced the Tories to vote against the bid at the AGMA meeting."
However, Coun Garner said he would support a referendum, and would abide by the wishes of the electorate. "We don't think enough people have been asked, and that the consultation that was done was inconclusive."
He added: "We are not opposed to a national system of road pricing, whereby those who use the roads most would pay, but this TIF bid is just a tax on people going to work."
THE TIF BID Council leaders say the TIF scheme is vital to ease congestion and save thousands of jobs across Greater Manchester.
If successful, the bid will bring in £3 billion for public transport improvements such as Metrolink extensions, new interchanges, and more buses. Some £1.2 billion would come from the government, with £1.8 billion borrowed and paid back over 30 years through the congestion charge.
The bid is being worked up in detail, and will be approved or otherwise by the government early next year.
The proposed charging scheme would make drivers pay up to £5 a day (at today's prices) to travel into Manchester and back, through an outer ring at the M60 and an inner zone, yet to be defined. It would apply on weekdays only, from 7am to 9.30am heading into the city - although the proposed evening slot, from 4pm to 6.30pm for those heading out of the city, is now to be reviewed, following concerns that shoppers would leave early to avoid the charge.
Ultimately, a congestion charge could be extended to Manchester's "satellite" towns such as Bury.
Among the details to be thrashed out by Christmas include the precise charging boundaries, discounts and exemptions, and regulation of future fare rises.
Bury has also asked that using the East Lancs Railway line to Ramsbottom should be part of the bid to ease congestion in the north of the borough.