The "war on motorists" is a myth

Everyone's feeling the pinch, but we shouldn't mistake that for a war on motorists.

Motorists are feeling the pinch. Prices at the pump are rising while most people’s pay packages have barely kept up with inflation in recent years.

But so too are rail users. Many fares will rise by 6.2 per cent while some commuters will face an 11 per cent hike.

New research from IPPR today shows that although it may not feel like it as rising oil costs push up petrol prices, motorists have actually done fairly well over the last decade—especially compared to rail and bus users. From 2000 to 2010, total motoring costs – that is including purchase costs, maintenance, petrol, taxes and insurance – have fallen in real terms by 8 per cent. Meanwhile, rail fares have increased by 17 per cent and bus and coach fares by 24 per cent.

 

Fuel prices drive perceptions about motoring costs, but only actually account for about a third of an average household’s weekly motoring costs of £77. Although fuel duty rates on petrol and diesel are high compared to other countries, they were actually 7 per cent lower in real terms in 2011 than in 2001. And compared to other countries, British motorists get away without paying a registration tax on a new car and we barely have any toll roads.

Yet since becoming Chancellor, George Osborne has delayed rises in fuel duty on three occasions at a total cost of £2.8 billion per year. In these tough economic times where the Government is trying to cut the deficit, every tax cut has to be paid for elsewhere—whether from cuts to the police, hospitals, or childcare provision.

Oil prices are extremely likely to continue rising over time. Rather than seeking to cushion this blow for UK motorists, planned annual increases in motoring taxes should be part of a rational government policy to make the transport system fairer, more sustainable and more resilient to oil price shocks.

If we are to spend additional money on transport, and there are good arguments for doing so, we should target rail and bus users rather than motorists. Buses are the most available and frequently used mode of public transport in England, making up two-thirds of all passenger journeys. Passenger miles on the railways have increased 60 per cent in a decade.

Everyone is feeling the pinch. But in these tough times, improving bus, coach and rail services and bring down their costs is more important than cutting fuel duty.

Lots of cars. Photograph: Getty Images

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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