London Special - Congestion

The capital has led the way on road pricing with the congestion charge and, despite the doomsayers,

The 1.8 million signatures on the recent road pricing petition is the least of the problems facing supporters of the concept. The plan to introduce a workable pay-as-you-drive scheme is pitted with so many potholes that it is difficult to see how politicians will ever manage to drive it through and implement anything like a comprehensive national system.

And I say "a" rather than "the" system, because there is no model, let alone a detailed scheme for it. That besides, the petition was a thoroughly dishonest exercise and was based on an email campaign which suggested that a very precise plan set a tariff of £1.30 per mile, with the additional cost of the "tag" - the GPS equipment on board that calculates the distance travelled - to be £200.

The ideas for road pricing that have been floated are various, but we are years away from any decision on charging rates or how the tags would be paid for. Given that no scheme exists, the petition was really an exercise in enlisting people who are against paying a supposedly new tax - and a man with more courage than Tony Blair would have said so.

There is no worked-out model because a national system would look very different from the only large-scale scheme currently in operation: London's congestion charge. London is exceptional for many reasons, not least the excellence of its public transport, with 12 Tube lines and 700 bus routes and a low rate of car usage. Since it came into operation in 2003 the initial congestion charge has, indeed, been a success in reducing traffic by 20 per cent, even though, at a cost of £161.7m, it has been expensive to introduce.

The western extension, controversially introduced last month to double the congestion charge's catchment area, has shakier foundations and may prove damaging to perceptions of the scheme's success.

It takes in an area that is largely residential - few people travel to work there - and the decision to allow residents a 90 per cent discount to drive in the whole area gave the affluent residents of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea leave to enter the original charging area for less than they were paying before. That the good burghers of Kensington held protests at their town hall suggests the relationship between brains and wealth is as tenuous as ever, even in these meritocratic times - a case of turkeys failing to support the abolition of Christmas.

The most telling phrase in Tony Blair's answer to the online petitioners was that "it would be ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible". 'Twas ever thus. Road pricing has always been ten years off. In 1993 the then transport secretary, John MacGregor, voiced commitment to introduce a scheme within a decade. Labour ministers have been saying the same thing for the past few years, seemingly unaware of the passage of time.

Blair is technologically illiterate and his response is dishonest. The technology to introduce a national scheme is available and already being used in Germany, where all lorries are charged to use the motorways. Nine out of ten pay through a sophisticated tagging system with an on-board unit that uses the US satellite system Toll Collect to calculate distance travelled. Operated by T-Systems, a subsidiary of T-Mobile, Toll Collect is 99 per cent accurate, and has been shown to function properly even in urban areas where there were concerns that tall buildings would cause black spots.

Lorry lobby

In Britain, a similar system was planned to assuage complaints by the road haulage industry that foreign lorries were getting a free ride on our motorways. However, in 2005, Alistair Darling, the then transport secretary, abruptly cancelled the proposed lorry road charging scheme, arguing that it would get in the way of the national scheme being proposed for all motorists - which, of course, he said would be ten years down the line.

This explanation does not hold water. The lorry scheme would have been an incredibly useful trial run for the wider implementation of the system. Instead it revealed political cowardice from a minister who had been sent to the Department for Transport to keep the ministry out of the headlines following the negative coverage that his immediate pre decessor, Stephen Byers, had managed to produce.

Despite making the scheme acceptable to hauliers by promising it would replace existing forms of taxation, and therefore be revenue-neutral, Darling was simply too scared of potential resistance from hauliers, a group that has terrified government ministers since the fuel protests of 2000, which almost brought the country to a standstill. This was a lost opportunity to soften up public opinion and sort out the technology.

This episode demonstrates that the biggest obstacle in implementing a national road pri-cing scheme is political, not technical. And it leads to the crucial question: What would be the purpose of a national road charging scheme? For a while ministers, ever fearful of the Jeremy Clarkson brigade, seemed to imply that it would be revenue-neutral, simply replacing fuel tax and vehicle excise duty.

That did not make sense at the time and makes even less now. The enormous costs and the political capital needed to introduce a national road pricing scheme would be disproportionate if its aim were simply to reduce congestion a tad on a few overcrowded roads. The sole rationale for imposing such an expensive and far-reaching measure would be to reduce the environmental damage caused by cars and induce a shift to other, greener, forms of transport.

Lack of political will

Here, however, there appears to be further trouble ahead as the incoherence of wider government transport policy is horribly exposed. At present, rail fares are being allowed to rise by 1 per cent above inflation. For the buses, too, fare increases above inflation in the deregulated and privatised sector are the norm. But Britain has in the past invested far less of its GDP in transport infrastructure than other comparable European economies - with the result that people induced out of their cars by the stick of heavy taxation have few carrots of nice, shiny trains or fleets of state-of-the-art buses with which to console themselves.

Aware of this, ministers tried to offload the political risk of implementing the scheme on to local authorities, offering generous bribes in the form of a Transport Infrastructure Fund that comes in two parts: the first to fund feasibility studies and the second for the implementation of schemes. Local authorities in large conurbations such as Manchester and Birmingham came back saying: "Give us lots of money to pay for better public transport, and then we will im plement road pricing." Even those areas which have been allocated money for feasibility studies, such as Norfolk, are worried about actually spending the money because of fears of a hostile local response.

Given such a reaction on the ground, and the ease with which motorists' fear of extra taxation can be roused by public campaigns, road pricing in Britain is likely to be mired in endless discussion, documents and feasibility studies for far longer than a decade.

A national scheme would require great courage and conviction, and there are few signs of either from the Department for Transport. Without that, and, more importantly, without strong political leadership, a scheme that could reduce congestion and reduce carbon emissions will forever remain "ten years away".

Christian Wolmar's book on the history of the railways, "Fire and Steam", will be published by Atlantic Books in September (priced £19.99)

Road pricing facts and figures

1.8 million people signed e-petition against road pricing
33 million cars currently on UK roads
25% increase in congestion predicted by 2015
£22bn value of time wasted in England due to congestion by 2025
£62bn set-up cost of road pricing scheme
£8bn to administer scheme every year
£1.50 per mile toll planned for busiest roads during rush hour
21% of UK carbon emissions come from road traffic
£140bn investment on public transport by 2015
£28bn annual benefit to the UK economy
Research by Mosarrof Hussain

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood