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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.