CONTROVERSIAL proposals to introduce congestion charging in Manchester, as part of a £2.8 billion package to improve public transport, have been given Government backing.

Transport Secretary and Bolton MP Ruth Kelly told the Commons that ministers supported the scheme "in principle" and would work with the 10 councils in Greater Manchester to develop it.

She said £1.5 billion of Government funding was being made available to meet the cost of the package.

The majority of the improvements to public transport, including a number in Bolton, will take place before the introduction of a congestion charge in 2013 - if the scheme gets conditional approval in the autumn.

In a Commons statement, Ms Kelly said the country's future prosperity was threatened by the "growing problem of congestion on our roads".

She said the Greater Manchester local authorities believed congestion was putting "an increasing brake on their ambition and prosperity, putting one in seven future jobs at risk".

Under the scheme, motorists crossing the outer or inner ring into Manchester city centre in the morning, and leaving during evening peak time, will face charges of up to £5.

The outer ring follows the path of the M60 motorway, while the inner ring is concentrated around the city centre.

But before progress can be made on the scheme, the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (Agma), which is behind the proposals, must complete a period of public consultation. It will start on July 7 and end on October 10.

Speaking at a press conference in Rochdale which coincided with Ms Kelly's announcement, Agma leader Lord Peter Smith said part of the process would involve a "referendum of the people" in each of the 10 districts of Greater Manchester to gauge response.

He added: "Rather than everyone doing their own thing, a system will be agreed across Greater Manchester. There will be detailed surveys across the 10 districts, so we are getting figures for all areas affected.

"I think what we will have to do is make a vote and report that to the Government. Clearly if it is not a majority, it (the scheme) is not going to go any further."

Bolton Council has already agreed to hold a referendum-style poll on the issue before making a final decision on whether to back the proposals, a pledge reaffirmed yesterday by council leader Cliff Morris.

Trafford, Bury and Stockport have already said they will vote against congestion charging and the rest, with the exception of Bolton, have previously been in favour.

Following the consultation process, a bid for conditional approval must be submitted by Agma to the Department for Transport in the autumn.

Ms Kelly said economists estimated that the benefits of the scheme, if passed, would be spread "right across the whole of the city region".

She added: "As a result of these proposals, journey times will be 20 per cent shorter for those travelling in and out of Greater Manchester. They will be more reliable, there will be less traffic, there will be more capacity on rail services and, indeed, on the busiest routes."

Claims the scheme may eventually spread to Bolton were not denied yesterday.

Sir Richard Leese, deputy leader of Agma, said. "A congestion charge for Bolton is some way down the line. You would have to start the whole process again if you wanted to introduce a congestion charge system in Bolton."