Right now the votes are being counted for the Manchester congestion charge. The charge is hefty and radical. Drivers who travel at all the wrong times will pay up to £1200 a year extra if it is voted in. £3 Billion will be spent on public transport if it is voted in.

I cycle into Manchester and so will get all the benefits (quieter, safer, cleaner roads) at very little extra cost. At the most I will have to  re-think those few peak time trips that I do make.  I guess that means I’m bound to vote yes.  But it would be nice if I had some less selfish reasons for my decision.

A friend of mine,Matt Wilson,  recently blogged a dilemma he was in: on the one hand he dislikes traffic jams, on the other he think the congestion charge is unjust:

I consider the T.I.F. proposals to be fundamentally unjust at the core. No investment in roads, but all the cash drivers pay goes to subsidise other people’s travel (I generalise), that’s just wrong.

That’s a strong charge, and should make anyone looking for ‘objective’ reasons to vote sit up and take notice. (By objective reasons, I just mean reasons that aren’t based on purely personal impact.) I wouldn’t want to have voted for an unjust act just because it benefits me.

Is it a fair charge against the charge? On the face of it it seems persuasive (especially if you are a driver, I guess). But we might notice that taxing one group of people for the benefit of another group is common practice in a society like ours. Redistributive tax (income/ inheritance etc) does just that. We take money from those who have a lot to support those who have very little.

Now there are clear differences,  I’m not suggesting it is like for like, but it is sometimes claimed that in cases of redistributive tax, those charged a lot do benefit by being part of a more stable and equal society etc. Here there is a parallel: it is reasonable to think that everyone will benefit from having better public transport and quieter roads.

Still, I don’t think that is enough to mitigate Matt’s charge of injustice. If we all benefit, why don’t we all pay?

Here is a better response: justice takes a wider scope than any one transaction. Justice must be more than about who pays for what and who gets what. Charging drivers isn’t just about paying for better transport for other people, it is about changing the status quo. It is about looking at Manchester and the world and thinking that something has to change.

We put in place clean air acts and carbon charges because we think it is no longer ok for things to carry on as they are. So if we think it is no longer OK to carry on with such a high dependence on petrol and personalised motorised transport, perhaps we should be willing to put some serious measures in place to try and achieve change.

This is still a long way short of conclusive, but it perhaps takes some of the punch of Matt’s argument from injustice.