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
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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