Seizing the moment as only a politician can, with breathtaking opportunism, the leader of the opposition Labour group on Birmingham City Council yesterday decided to claim that the West Midlands' refusal to volunteer for road pricing experiments risked the region being left behind when decisions about transport infrastructure spending are made by the Government.
Sir Albert Bore went on to suggest that Birmingham would "give its back teeth" for the £3 billion pledged by the Department for Transport as a reward for Greater Manchester council's decision to impose a £5 daily congestion charge on vehicles entering Manchester city centre.
He is right of course when he claims that West Midlands councils would love to get their hands on a life-changing offer from the Government. Much could be achieved with £3 billion, not least completion of the Midland Metro tram extensions, enlargement of the local rail network and radical improvement to bus services. But the money being dangled at Manchester comes with a health warning in terms of the impact that a congestion charge is bound to have on individual drivers and businesses.
Sir Albert was being alittle disingenuous by failing to mention why the seven West Midlands councils, including those controlled by his own party, decided against becoming fall-guys for the Government. Try as they might, informed by months of extensive and expensive professional research, the councils could not satisfy themselves that charging people to enter Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country at peak times would be of any benefit to the regional economy.
In fact, the research strongly suggested that while a charge would do little to reduce congestion it most certainly would strike at the heart of the West Midlands' economic competitiveness. There is no evidence, despite Government claims to the contrary, that investors are likely to flock to a region where road pricing exists. It is far more likely that jobs and investment will flow to areas where employees and employers do not have to pay an additional tax to pass through urban areas at peak times.
It is interesting to note that Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, is again hinting at introducing a nationwide road pricing scheme. Ministers, presumably, have realised that most major towns and cities will not do the Government's dirty work.
Manchester will get its £3 billion, but voters will have the final say about Labour-run councils' enthusiasm for congestion charging.