Brian Macdowall is Campaign Director of the Alliance of British Drivers, a motoring pressure group.
Approximately 33 million drivers have votes. At the 2010 General Election, the cost of private transport was reported to be a ‘Top Two’ doorstep issue and ‘Motorway Man’ was the key swing voter, but none of the parties really won him over.
In their paper, Fuel For Thought, Institute for Fiscal Studies researchers observed that historically drivers had not been a militant group but warned that this was changing, and even of possible mass discontent
Grant Shapps, then a DCLG minister, noted that car parking was the No. 1 concern mentioned by MPs, and felt it essential for local authorities to appreciate that hammering the motorist visiting the local shops was not the solution.
In his area, an unprecedented outcry from villagers forced Welwyn Hatfield Council to drop planned parking charges in Welwyn. One Parish Councillor said that he could not recall another occasion when so many residents had joined forces – 3,400 signed a petition.
Hundreds joined a protest where the petitions were brought by hearse and handed to the council in a coffin. Black ribbons were also wrapped around posts in Welwyn to mark “the death of the village” with the proposed introduction of new parking restrictions.
In Surrey, tens of thousands signed petitions, forcing Surrey County Council to debate proposals for parking charges in public. The number of signatories equated to 7% of the county taking action. In Oxted, the local Chamber of Commerce carried out its own impact assessment which found that the loss of revenue to Oxted businesses alone was likely to be in millions, with a potential loss of about 26 jobs. It also projected business closures resulting in further job losses.
A Freedom of Information request showed that Surrey County Council hadn’t come up with a proper business plan, and when a residents’ group examined its proposals, the formal ‘Statement of Reasons’ made it quite clear that this was purely a revenue raising exercise, which would not be lawful.
There was extensive coverage for days on BBC Surrey’s Breakfast Show. The uproar that followed produced a climbdown.
At least the recent court judgement against Barnet Council will make other authorities think more carefully about parking charges. They will also note the massive tactical vote against the cabinet member involved, Brian Coleman, causing him to lose his long-standing GLA seat.
Other issues are proving highly emotive.
In Bristol, the council faced a popular backlash after a busy commuter route was converted to a two way bus lane, causing 53 drivers to be fined in a day. Local feeling was so strong that 200 protesters stormed the council building causing a meeting to discuss the measure to be cancelled.
Recent plans for the A14 (Cambs) have included creating a tolled section, but demolishing an existing section to effectively force drivers to use it (or face a long detour). This has aroused opposition from local businesses, freight and other business organisations; Chambers of Commerce, local councils and MPs. The excuse that there was insufficient money (without tolling) looks weak given that the government threw the £1.3Bn required at the European Investment Bank to provide Italy with motorways on the cheap; and arguably underpriced Royal Mail shares by about the same.
Drivers pay roughly five times over for use of the roads. There is no case for increasing this burden. At a time when sources of local government funding are under review, the government should respect the deep lack of public acceptability towards road pricing.
Britain’s roads should also be seen as a national asset held in trust by government for future generations, with investment having been paid in advance by drivers. Keeping them in public ownership would actually be consistent with the Conservative policy of opposing Labour’s privatisation of London Underground Ltd.
A little respect for ‘Motorway Man’ would go a long way.