BUSINESSMEN locked horns over the controversial congestion charge proposals in a debate held in Bolton.

Lobbyists on both sides tried to persuade local company owners to join their respective alliances, following the start of the three-month public consultation this week.

Ken Knott, the chief executive of Ask Developments, the company behind the £196 million Church Wharf project in Bolton, and founder of pro-congestion charge group United City, said it was the "only way" to secure £3 billion of the Government's Transport Innovation Fund (TIF).

Speaking at the meeting, held at David Lloyd Fitness and Health Centre in Bolton, Mr Knott said: "Manchester's 10 local authorities are saying that if that's the only game in town, we should look at what we have to do to get the whole pot."

The TIF bid made by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, which includes Bolton Council, and the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority, is the only one now being considered by the Government.

In return for £1.5 billion from the Department of Transport, Greater Manchester will be loaned a further £1.2 billion, which would be paid back with money raised by charging motorists for entering and leaving Manchester at peak times.

The £2.8 billion will be topped up with a further £300 million, with the whole amount being spent on improving the region's public transport system.

In Bolton, that would include a rapid bus service linking Bolton, Farnworth, Kearsley and Manchester; an improved service to Middlebrook, more frequent buses in Hart Common and Westhoughton, and a new town centre interchange. It would also include a new platform at Lostock train station, an expanded park and ride scheme, and other station improvements.

Mr Knott said road capacity was not increasing at the same rate as use and that solving congestion was "absolutely key" to the "continued economic prosperity" of towns like Bolton, as well as Manchester.

He said: "We must not look this gift horse in the mouth. Doing nothing is not an option.

"Our civic leaders have negotiated a very good deal from government and we should find the determination and vision to back them."

But Andrew Simpson, the managing director of transport and property giant Peel Holdings and spokesman for the Manchester Momentum Group, warned a congestion charge would be a disaster. He said it risked driving businesses away from the area and that having rings inside the M60 and around the city centre would not reduce congestion where it was worse - the motorways.

Mr Simpson said a third of workers earning approximately £20,000 a year would pay around £1,200 a year in charges and that congestion could be tackled for a fraction of the cost by improving roads and junctions at "pinch points".

He also questioned why the Government could not just invest the £1.5 billion promised without raising the rest through charging, which he described as a "dash for cash".