We're in Manchester this week, for the Labour Party conference. Amid all the talk about Gordon's leadership and the credit crunch, the big issue here is the congestion charge - which goes to a referendum across Greater Manchester in December.
Ruth Kelly spoke at our Urban Hub event on transport yesterday, along with Louise Ellman (Chair, Transport Committee), Helen Holland (Leader, Bristol) and Angie Robinson (Chief Exec, Greater Manchester Chamber).
Kelly has to tiptoe around the Greater Manchester congestion charge. She can support the general policy of congestion charging, but not the specific Greater Manchester scheme. As Secretary of State, she will have the final say on whether the scheme goes ahead - but she can't prejudge the outcome of the referendum. As MP for Bolton West, she can be more supportive, but there's a lot of local opposition to the scheme in her own constituency.
So she has to tread carefully on congestion charging, and wasn't able to say much about it yesterday. But she did have a double-edged message for the leadership of Greater Manchester. She praised Richard Leese and co for their strong leadership, and Ken Livingstone's bravery in going for the congestion charge in London. But she also repeated her support for elected mayors: "I'd like to see great cities have elected mayors and strong powers". Which isn't on the cards here. Instead, Greater Manchester is leading the pack of Multi Area Agreements, with individual council leaders working together across the city-region.
Angie Robinson also has to choose her words carefully. The business community in Greater Manchester is hugely divided on congestion charging, with United City pushing for a "yes" vote and the Momentum Group leading the "no" lobby. Angie said the city-region's Transport Innovation Fund bid was a "major, major, major" issue. The Department for Transport is insisting that the congestion charge scheme goes ahead, otherwise Greater Manchester won't get the TIF money.
The result of the referendum remains finely balanced, with most expecting a "no" vote in December. There is still time for the "yes" lobby to get their point across, but only if they change the terms of the debate. Greater Manchester won't vote for a new tax, but they might vote for extra transport investment - and for better buses, an improved Metrolink, and an integrated Oyster-type ticketing system. That would help pensioners and those without cars, and reduce travel times around the city. But the voices against are loud and powerful, and the requirement for seven out of ten councils to approve is a tall order.
This is a massive and early test for the emerging Multi Area Agreement in Greater Manchester. A "no" vote would be a major blow for this experiment in cross-boundary collaboration, and could fuel support for a directly-elected mayor. It would also present DfT with a real headache. The £1.5 billion currently on offer from Kelly's department is dependent on a "yes" vote. It's not clear what will happen to that money if there's a "no" vote.