BOLTON is being blackmailed into accepting controversial congestion charge proposals, a leading Tory MP has claimed.

Theresa Villiers was in the town yesterday to launch the local Conservative group's transport manifesto ahead of May's local elections.

Mrs Villiers, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said the Government was "coercing" local authorities into adopting a congestion charge to pay for improved transport.

"Some have accused the Government of blackmail. I do not think that is too strong a word," she said.

"A decision on congestion charges should be made locally. There will be some places where a charge would work, but it is unfair of the Government to coerce councils into adopting a congestion charge to pay for improved transport."

AGMA - the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities - has lodged a £3 billion bid for Government cash to improve the area's transport infrastructure.

Of that, around £2 billion would be in the form of a loan repayable by using the proceeds of a congestion charge.

Two zones have been earmarked - one for Manchester city centre and the other for the area inside of the M60.

Bolton Council signalled its support for the bid when the leader, Cllr Cliff Morris, signed it on behalf of the authority.

However, he has maintained that the ruling Labour party does not support a congestion charge for Bolton, which could be included in the second phase of any road charging programme introduced.

Last month, the Liberal Democrat group in Bolton tabled a motion which called for a borough-wide poll to gauge public opinion on the matter. It was given cross-party approval and will be held on a date to be decided.

Last night, Cllr Morris said all local authorities, including those controlled by the Conservatives, were bidding for funding and waiting for a decision.

He added: "The Government is not blackmailing us about anything. At the end of the day, the people of Bolton will decide. That is what I have always said."

Mrs Villiers was joined on her tour of Bolton by Cllr John Walsh. leader of the Conservative group in Bolton.

He vowed to carry out a comprehensive review of the borough's transport network to "bring it into the 21st century" if his party wins the local elections.

"The highway network is out of date and not suited to today's traffic," he said.

"We will examine the road network and public transport links - we have been promised an integrated train station and bus station since 1966.

"We will look at car parking and how it can help retailers by having limited free parking, together with pay on exit car parks. Pedestrian safety will also be a top priority. We will look at what we have in the coffers. We will deliver over a period after consultation.

"Congestion charging is not the answer to improved public transport. We will not, as with fuel duty, have another stealth tax on motorists."