Reports of the death of the 4WD exaggerated

News that 4×4 sales are down compared with last year might make you think the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s is about to pack up and go home, but believe me, we still have a long way to go.

For its current issue, trade magazine ‘The Manufacturer’ obtained sales figures for the first half of 2006 from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and compared them with figures from 2005. They found something that, at first glance, seems extraordinary: after rising every year for the past decade, 4×4 sales were marginally down.

Cue the headlines. The Evening Standard got hold of the figures and seized upon them to announce that the era of the 4×4 was coming to an end. Using a picture of me putting a fake parking ticket on a Range Rover to illustrate the story, they announced ‘Chelsea tractors driven into decline by public backlash.’

(One of my Green Party colleagues later emailed to ask, “What did they do to that photo to make you look so small?” The answer is nothing. I’m five foot six, not exactly tiny. It’s just that the Range Rover really is very huge indeed.)

Both the Evening Standard and The Manufacturer credited campaigns like ours with the switch this year from massive growth to a small reduction in new 4×4 registrations. The magazine said, “The figures suggest that environmental campaigns to make driving SUVs socially unacceptable have been successful.” This is all very flattering, but the victory party at Alliance HQ is still on hold and here’s why.

Let’s look at those sales figures in more detail. In the first half of 2005, 93,988 new 4×4s were registered in the UK. Between January and June of 2006, this figure was 93,860 – a 0.14% fall. Superficially this compares well with a 13% rise between 2003 and 2004, and a 5% rise last year.

However, the market share commanded by 4×4s continues to go up. This year new car registrations across all sectors are down by more than 4% so you could argue (and the SMMT does) that 4×4 sales are, in fact, holding up well.

And this still means nearly 94,000 new 4×4s are now on the road that weren’t there in January, and that tens of thousands more will join them by the end of this year. Hardly a cast-iron reason to celebrate, although it is a sign that higher fuel prices and more environmental concerns may be starting to affect people’s choice of car.

There’s still an awful lot left for our campaign to achieve. Ideally we’d like to see no-one driving an off-roader around town who isn’t actually going to use it off the road, and we’re realistic about the challenges we face.

With new 4×4s appearing every month, and the re-launch of the Landrover Freelander about to saturate our TV screens and city centre billboards, campaigns like ours are dwarfed by the reach of the global advertising industry. No matter how many interviews, phone-ins and newspaper headlines we get, we’ll never make the difference we need to without legislation to control this propaganda and bring the pollution taxes paid by owners of gas-guzzlers up to effective levels.

But the public backlash is real enough. Even the cabby taking me to Television Centre to talk about the story on the news was exasperated at the huge size of the latest models and the poor driving he sees every day from 4×4 drivers. With public awareness growing of the pollution, carbon dioxide emissions and danger to pedestrians from big 4×4s, there can’t be a Landcruiser or Cayenne driver in the country who hasn’t had their ear bent by a public-spirited friend over dinner. These factors do seem to be making the 4×4 unfashionable at last.

With luck this fall in sales will also - at least privately - be seen as significant by manufacturers for whom sales growth surely makes the difference between a winning product line and an ailing white elephant. Perhaps they will now start to make and promote nice, small, clean cars rather than behemoths we don’t need?

Don’t hold your breath. On the other hand, if you’re stuck behind one on your bike, hold it - hold it for as long as you can.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR