BURY'S heritage East Lancs Railway could play a crucial part in the controversial congestion charging scheme.

A commuter link to Ramsbottom is now part of the package approved by transport bosses for a £3 billion public transport investment, which also imposes road pricing across the conurbation.

Bury, along with seven other councils in Greater Manchester, has voted to submit a formal bid to the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF). If successful, £1.2 billion will come from the government, with the rest borrowed and paid back over 30 years through the congestion charge. Two councils, Trafford and Stockport, voted against.

The East Lancs Railway (ELR) could take workers from the north of the borough to Bury, then link up to the main line via Heywood and Castleton.

Councillor Yvonne Creswell, deputy leader of Bury Council, voted "yes" in the absence of council leader Bob Bibby at the executive meeting of AGMA (Association of Greater Manchester Authorities).

"No one reveals their full hand before going into negotiations: it would not help get the best for Bury residents if I did so at this stage," she said.

"When the time comes, if the package does not benefit every community in the borough, we will have no hesitation in voting against it. We have said we are against congestion charging, and that remains our position."

A panel of businessmen and economists told AGMA that the four tests for a TIF bid had been met, including sufficient support from residents and businesses.

People in Bury, though, were less impressed than elsewhere.

An NOP poll, as reported in last week's Bury Times, revealed that 50 per cent of residents in Bury agreed with the principle of the scheme (with 37 per cent against); 50 per cent were in favour of the scheme as proposed (43 per cent against); and 66 per cent in favour of submitting a TIF bid (26 per cent against).

But among Bury employers, only 39 per cent agreed in principle (42 per cent against); just 33 per cent agreed with the current scheme (60 per cent against); and 57 per cent agreed with submitting a bid (33 per cent said no).

The panel is confident that 80 per cent of the money will be invested in transport before the charge starts in 2012, with the rest over the following two years.

Sir Richard Leese, deputy leader of AGMA, said: "If we don't tackle rising congestion, our growth path will be affected: business costs will continue to rise, labour markets will shrink and some 30,000 jobs will be lost to the area.

"We are all agreed that investment must come first, before any congestion charging, which in any event would only apply in the working week at peak periods. No one thought that bidding for TIF would be universally popular. However, this way forward does command the strongest level of support among businesses and the general public."

Sir Richard said they would seek wider support for the project, because the more people understood the scheme, the more they backed it.

THE BID The TIF bid will now be worked up in detail over the next six months, and approved or otherwise by the government early next year.

Greater Manchester is in competition with other parts of England for TIF money, including possibly the West Midlands, Cambridge, Tyne and Wear, and Shropshire.

The 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.

Other changes agreed by AGMA include the ELR link, and increases in the number of school buses and park and ride places. There could also be an independent regulator to guard against future changes and fare increases.

More thought needs to be given, they say, before a congestion charge is considered for the "satellite" towns such as Bury.

Details of the inner charging ring should be worked up by September, with rules on whether to allow majority voting by October, along with plans of the ELR scheme. By November, proposals are expected on future fare rises, discounts and exemptions, and detailed charging boundaries.

THE REACTION THE Clean Air Now group welcomed the decision. Spokesman Dave Coleman said: "Funding a step change in our public transport offers a real chance for improving quality of life. We congratulate AGMA on showing strong leadership and we hope that the continued development of the plans will be carefully thought out in order to deliver safer streets, cleaner air and quality of life for all."

BUT the Forum of Private Business (FPB) called the decision a body blow for smaller firms.

Campaigns manager Matt Hardman said: "They can't put their goods and services on public transport, even if it is improved. Secondly, the times that they drive into and out of the zones are dictated by their customers. If clients can't get their deliveries at their door and on time they will take business elsewhere.

"Then there are the extra costs," he continued. "For example, wage demands by employees who might still be travelling to work by car or the cost of having to recruit replacements for staff who find jobs outside the zone."

SUPPORT came from the GMBOA (Greater Manchester Bus Operators' Association), whose chairman Mark Threapleton said: "The TIF bid is so much more than just the congestion charge. It's about massive investment in the public transport infrastructure of Greater Manchester.

"The exciting opportunities and potential rewards this investment signals balances any concern we may have over the restrictions this external influence/involvement may have on our commercial freedom.

"We are fully committed to accelerating our investment to deliver new buses and creating the capacity needed to meet post-charging requirements, because of the investment the public sector has committed to provide to give buses and bus passengers a better and more equitable deal on Greater Manchester's roads."

THE response was more ambivalent from Greater Manchester Chamber, which represents many Bury businesses. Chief executive Angie Robinson said: "We look forward to further consultation and there is still a lot of explanation that the business community requires. Our members have raised a number of concerns, such as how commercial vehicles will be affected by the congestion charge, and these have still to be addressed."

BURY councillor Andrew Garner, a member of the Passenger Transport Authority, was annoyed that the PTA meeting was delayed until after the AGMA decision.

However, his Lib Dem group proposed amendments, demanding that a specific figure of £3 billion be the minimum investment needed for the transport network.

Coun Garner said: "Anything less just won't be enough, and yet the government have been strangely vague on the total that we'll be eligible for. We need absolute certainty, and if the figure ends up less than £3 billion, then the TIF bid is dead in the water as far as I am concerned."

Lib Dems also called for re-regulation of the bus network, which he said would put service before profits.