The Greater Manchester road charging scheme has been rejected in a referendum involving all ten boroughs.

More than a million people voted in the referendum, with a turnout of 53.2 per cent.

The plans needed a majority in favour in at least seven local authority districts to get the go-ahead. The resounding "no" vote is likely to signal the end of the road for any national road pricing scheme.

And the Manchester result could also discourage the few local authorities pursuing the congestion-charge option from proceeding further.

In March this year, West Midlands councils rejected a road charging scheme. Councils covering Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country agreed it would be impossible to attract business and political support for a £5 levy to be charged for driving through key areas at peak times.

The cost of congestion is known to be astronomical and there have been dire warnings as to what will happen if nothing is done to curb traffic growth.

However, there is now an argument that the huge amounts of new technology and the high cost of implementing any national road pricing scheme is economically and politically impractical during the sort of extreme recession now expected.

Cynics can also point to the fact that with a huge economic downturn to be encountered, there will be a slowing in the growth of road traffic anyway.

In any event, the Manchester response is significant and follows the two-to-one rejection by local residents of the continuing operation of the western extension of the congestion charge area in London.

Other than Durham in north-east England, London is the only place where a congestion charge exists.

The London scheme has been a partial success although improved traffic flows have been offset by jam-causing streetworks.

While never committing itself to a policy of widespread road pricing, the Government has set in motion various jam-busting measures. These have included making £200 million a year available from the Transport Innovation Fund - a financial pot for which local authorities can bid and which will fund local transport projects in return for a council exploring traffic-management schemes.

So far, only authorities in Leeds, Reading, Cambridgeshire and in the Bristol area have shown interest.

In addition, the Government is looking at the whole question of road pricing technology and feasibility through various projects.
The Government is also exploring other ways to beat congestion, with schemes including high-occupancy vehicle lanes on motorways and allowing cars to use the hard shoulder of motorways at busy times.

Even taking account of hard economic times, the rate of growth of road traffic in the UK may merely slow rather than grind to a halt.

At a conference in London last month, Transport Minister Paul Clark said plans were being put in place because to do nothing would ensure that gridlock worsened when the economy revived. But he also made it clear that, before any form of road pricing was introduced, the Government had to fully address people's concerns around fairness and privacy.

It was also vital, he added, that those affected had proper transport alternatives.

It has always been stressed that any road pricing on a national scale was some years off. It could now be postponed indefinitely.

AA president Edmund King said: "The voters of Manchester have shown that they have no great appetite for congestion charging. This comes as no surprise as our latest AA/Populus poll showed that 77% of motorists in the north west would vote
against local road charging schemes.

"A majority of motorists nationwide (77%) are still opposed to local road pricing schemes and 86% of motorists do not trust the Government to introduce a fair system of road pricing.

"Motorists are still suffering from the after effects of record fuel prices so perhaps it is not surprising that there is little support for local charging schemes.

"However, this decision does not remove the need for the promised increase in transport investment in Manchester which we believe should still go ahead."

Friends of the Earth's senior transport campaigner Tony Bosworth said: "Greater Manchester has missed the opportunity to develop a clean, fast and efficient transport network.

"Investing in a state-of-the-art public transport system, cycling and walking would have brought massive benefits to ordinary people by tackling congestion, climate change and air pollution.

"But Manchester's loss could be another's gain. Government cash is still up for grabs and local authorities across the country now have the chance to bid for their own low-carbon transport systems.

"Road transport accounts for more than 20% of the UK's total carbon dioxide emissions. The Government must urgently introduce a comprehensive programme of measures to cut transport emissions as part of its plans to slash the UK's contribution to global climate change."