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Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Aberdeen North at the 2015 general election and was a candidate in the Kilburn Ward on Camden in the 2018 London council elections.

Major change awaits at the end of March. Clearly, I’ve been aware of it for some time but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

I realise I’m not going to be directly affected that much but that doesn’t stop me from taking it all personally. If only I could get the decision reversed.

I’m referring, of course, to the impending date at which my hybrid car loses its exemption from the London Congestion Charge. Avid readers will remember my 2017 piece on how I ditched an aged three-litre gas guzzler and implored the ConHome faithful to follow my righteous example. (It was a quaint article written in the days when folks talked about stuff other than Brexit.)

A ratcheting up of the exemption criteria (which essentially now applies solely to plug-in hybrids and ‘pure’ electric vehicles) has finally squeezed me out. Worse still, the explanatory e-mail reads something along the lines of “The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has decided your vehicle no longer…” Little wonder I feel singled out.

I’m whipping up the personal angle for dramatic effect here. My area of London is blessed with great public transport links so the Congestion Charge exemption was a bonus I’ve rarely taken advantage of. But others won’t be so lucky – and what will hitting them harder really achieve?

What I want to do here is examine both the fairness and effectiveness of congestion charging. And, more significantly, the wider implications of such devolved policies. First, the fairness angle.

My hybrid isn’t one of those ubiquitous Priuses but it is a reasonably common sight in London these days. My sense is that a fair few buyers will have plumped for it to bag the Congestion Charge exemption and will have traded in a dirtier vehicle to do so. It seems a tad harsh to now clobber them so soon after they’ve been ‘nudged’ into spending their own money to do the right thing.

Moreover, goalpost-shifting quickly creates a knock-on effect on industry: we’re already seeing buyers holding off replacing their vehicles. Worse still, in this age of cynicism towards politicians, the public can become frustrated at perceived stealth taxes. (Exhibit A: France.)

What also adds to the uncertainty is the sheer complexity of charging schemes. In London, we now have the Congestion Charge, the T-Charge, and soon the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, all in constant evolution and applying to different areas, vehicles and times. And don’t go disregarding all this if you live beyond the capital. Similar schemes won’t be far behind elsewhere in the UK and already exist in Europe.

But how effective are the latest changes?

Charging to enter any given zone isn’t an answer in itself: pollution is pollution whether it’s paid for or not. In this instance, ‘nudging’ a few hybrids to remain outside the CC zone might improve traffic flow (it is a congestion charge, after all) and help trim overall emissions, but does it won’t significantly address the health and environmental issues now being raised.

My suspicion is that the chief culprits aren’t those pesky hybrids (typically Prius Uber taxis) whistling by on battery mode. Instead, it’s all those diesels.

But tackling their emissions is already proving contentious. The new ULEZ charges will hit owners of pre-2016 (i.e. not necessarily ancient smokers) diesel commercial vehicles hard, especially those forced to enter the city daily for work. Spurred on by push-back on the economic impact of these charges, the Mayor of London has launched a van scrappage scheme aimed at micro-businesses. However replacements, especially electric ones, remain rare and expensive.

So, is using taxpayer money to remove a handful of Transits an effective means of slashing emissions? Perhaps not, given that the major polluters remain the big commercial users, chiefly buses, lorries and taxis. Failure to prioritise these risks punishing certain groups whilst not tackling the main issues.

As described in another ConHome piece of mine, with fully-electric alternatives not yet established for vehicles of this size, a potential solution might be to prioritise the switchover of these large diesels to hydrogen.

Fuel-cell transportation is still at an early stage of development but progress is being made – the Japanese are embracing the hydrogen economy whilst the UK will see its first hydrogen trains in 2022. And at the exhibition hall at the party conference in Birmingham, it was encouraging to hear Royal Mail’s plans for its extensive fleet.

What of the wider implications?

Last week’s sad news of lay-offs at Jaguar Land-Rover (JLR) was met by a range of theories. Those opposing Brexit saw it as a sign of things to come. Others noted that key factors (Chinese market downturn, low-cost Slovakian labour) exist irrespective of whether (or how) we quit the EU. And whilst other UK-based manufacturers, such as Nissan, continue to invest in small, low-emissions vehicles, JLR may reflect that they were slow to move on. With UK emissions regulations in a flux, many buyers are now avoiding their big diesels.

But the long-term threat to established car manufacturers is driverless technology. If you can summon up a vehicle at any time via a ‘phone app, why bother buying a depreciating lump of metal to sit idle on your driveway for 99 per cent of the time? Little wonder that it’s Google and Uber who are shaping the future of personal transportation.

(Incidentally, my first experience of one was the prototype outside the party conference. As it glided off silently, a woman on her mobile dashed across the road right in front of it; the brakes came on instantly and disaster was averted. Many worry about the safety of autonomous vehicles but they’ll probably soon be better drivers than us.)

Urban air quality looks set to rocket up the agenda: the 2011 death of schoolgirl Ella Kissi-Debrah may be subject to a fresh inquest, with elevated pollution levels on the nearby South Circular Road now cited as a factor. But politicians legislating in this area need to remember they’re largely tidying up their own mess. Such was the drive to reduce the nation’s CO2 footprint, they encouraged diesel usage. Yet, in doing so, they seemingly dis-regarded the impact on urban emissions (and public health) of elevated soot and nitrous oxide (NOx) levels.

With a Conservative Government, a Labour mayor in City Hall, and an SNP administration in Holyrood, it would be optimistic to expect perfect alignment but let’s hope for a slightly more joined-up approach in future.

We have international examples to follow: California has been setting tougher vehicle emission standards than the federal government since the 1960s; today, almost twenty other US states now use its world-leading regulations.

Cities and devolved administrations may well have their own priorities but if they continuously chop and change their regulations, consumers get confused and industry pays the price.

37 comments for: Sanjoy Sen: Motorists and manufacturers need more coherent vehicle regulation

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