The 2023 Conservative Party conference cut the ribbon on what those inside Downing Street refer to as “sensible populism”: an attempt to recognise the issues that trouble the party’s reactionary base, not to mention its paranoid fringe, and to make them fit the national accounts. The sales pitch is that this is an honest conversation about what the country can afford, and what spending is really useful – that “hard-working families” would rather fix the potholes than build HS2, or cut the deficit than reach net zero. In practice, it signals the death of conservative ambition: a party that promised a new Victorian era is now abandoning public works in favour of a loosely defined commitment to personal liberty, embodied by the motor car.
This is not just small-minded but economically illiterate: there is no clawing back the £25bn already spent on HS2, and shortening the line only makes it less useful. It is a wilful ignorance of the reality that a new high-speed rail line is not only useful to the people that travel on it, but to the people who will enjoy increased economic activity in all the areas it serves. The reality is that Britain’s dependence on cars is not a freedom but an imposition – one that has drastic consequences for our economy.
When Jeremy Hunt told the Conservative conference on 2 October that there was no fiscal headroom for tax cuts, for example, he omitted that he will almost certainly give one group in society a real-terms tax break in his spring Budget, as every Conservative chancellor has done since 2010.
The drivers of petrol and diesel cars will continue to benefit from the freezing of fuel duty, which now amounts to a tax cut of £6bn per year against 2010 levels, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, while workers are forced to pay more income tax by the freezing of thresholds.
This is also a regressive tax cut, in that it is most beneficial to those that make the most use of their cars. The wealthiest fifth of the population drives more than three times as many miles as the fifth with the lowest income.
In a recent interview Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, rejected the idea that people on low incomes don’t drive, which she cast as a conceit of the “metropolitan bubble”. The truth is that people on low incomes are by far the least likely to own a car, and where they do – such as in the rural parts of Badenoch’s constituency – it is not through choice but because rail and bus services aren’t sufficient.
In transport studies this is referred to as “forced car ownership” or “transport precarity”: people who cannot afford a week’s holiday own a car. Greg Marsden, a professor of transport governance at Leeds University, told me it is common for these drivers to forego heating their home in order to pay for their vehicle. “On any other metric, you wouldn’t expect them to own a car,” Marsden said, “but they do, because they don’t have alternatives.”
The biggest problem for drivers in the UK is not the potholes themselves but what causes the potholes, the traffic, the air pollution – and that there are 33 million other cars on a road system that cannot contain them. Drivers want more roads, but no one wants a motorway near their house.
Despite the 2013 announcement of a road-building programme that was the biggest expansion since the 1970s (at a projected £50bn, it was a similar financial commitment to what was originally agreed for HS2), the UK has averaged just under nine miles of new motorway per year, or by less than 1 per cent, for the past two decades. The A-road network grows at an even slower rate, by about 0.1 per cent per year.
While Britain’s road network has not grown, the business model of the car industry has poured new vehicles into it. In 1992 Ford began selling cars using a scheme it called Options, in which the customer paid an initial deposit and a monthly fee, with the option to buy the car outright after three years, or start again and switch to a new model. Mondeo Man, as he was imagined by Tony Blair, got a new car every three years; the car company got a customer who was happy to be locked into an effectively endless debt that can be securitised and sold on. This structure, called a personal contract purchase (or PCP), was popular on both sides, and was adopted across the market. More than ten million extra cars have been added to British roads in the past 25 years, most of them paid for with PCPs.
At the same time, the planning system and Help to Buy subsidised the building of out-of-town housing developments with few if any shops or infrastructure, and which – according to a report commissioned by the RAC Foundation – trapped many thousands of people in car dependence.
The result has been a significant rise in consumer debt – car finance is the third-largest borrowing sector, after mortgages and credit cards, and exceeded £40bn last year alone – that is the unstable foundation for 180,000 manufacturing jobs and 10 per cent of the UK’s exports.
Some intervention is needed. On 2 October the Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, announced the “plan for drivers”, in which central government will intervene in local authorities to close bus lanes and remove 20mph speed limits, neither of which will make driving cheaper or more convenient. Fewer bus lanes will only make it more expensive for cash-strapped councils to provide buses, and 85 per cent of drivers already break 20mph speed limits, where they apply. In many towns the limits are redundant as the traffic is so dense.
Petty meddling aside, the plan’s most striking feature is a repeated commitment to “stop local authorities using so-called 15-minute cities to police people’s lives”. The idea of a “15-minute city” is an aspiration, perhaps utopian, of urban planners to make shops, GP surgeries and schools accessible within a short walk; it has been conflated with other policies that affect car use, such as low-traffic neighbourhoods and low-emission zones, into a plan to trap populations in a state of perpetual lockdown and surveillance. This is a conspiracy theory, copied and pasted into government policy.
Rishi Sunak himself has also announced that he will prevent “compulsory car sharing”, which is, like the “meat tax” and the mythical seven recycling bins, an entirely fictional policy. Encouraging car sharing is better than building new roads, because peak occupancy is an estimated 1.2 people per car. We are as a society currently spending a lot of money creating traffic and keeping people physically separated.
The Prime Minister’s rejection of such measures shows what “sensible populism” is really about: small-mindedness and stunted ambition, a commitment to poor service stations and sandwiches in plastic, a plan for a nation that grips its wheel and curses its fellows from behind glass, in which the only principle is the dull psychopathy of the road.
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power