Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The Government should continue to put car use at the heart of transport policy. The £1 billion a year spending on roads announced recently was good news – but needs context, and to be part of a consistent narrative. Along with home ownership, the automobile is a great promoter of freedom and a better life. Like home ownership, it is desired by most people, but derided by some political and policy commentators. Conservatives must loudly champion the car – while helping fix its downsides.
Keeping Fuel Duty down is crucial electorally
The Political Betting website in the early 2010s showed fuel prices rising or falling tracked Government polling leads. Though people adjust over time, shifts in fuel prices boost or cut disposable income. During the 2015 and 2017 election, prices were around £1.15 per petrol litre, according to the RAC. But in 2015 prices were falling, boosting income, while in 2017 prices were rising, leading to a fall in income.
Last November, when I argued on this site for a spring election, I said that the falling pound would cut real incomes and must be countered by a cut in VAT or fuel duty. Such a cut would have been justified, since oil prices rose from just over $40 to over $50 from last autumn to this spring. Had Labour been foolish enough to attack us in these circumstances, it would have reminded people that they are the party of higher taxes for everyone. Instead, we did nothing – and ended up with with falling disposable incomes during an election period.
The often-brilliant Nigel Lawson was wrong to recently suggest abandoning the freeze on fuel duty, especially as we do not know when the next election will be. If we need more revenue, we should scrap the proposed corporation tax cuts that will get even harder to justify as people’s incomes struggle.
Technology and markets solve problems more effectively than heavy-handed regulation
In recent years, total road vehicle use has risen more slowly than expected – rising by just four per cent from 2006 to 2016. Car use has stalled. Some on the Left now argue that we have reached ‘peak car’, and should adjust accordingly. Yet if traffic was rising, they would argue we needed government action to stop such unsustainable growth.
The recent moderation in car use links to rising van use (up 71 per cent since 1996) as deliveries by everyone from Tesco to Amazon have steadily increased. By 2015 there were 1.3 billion million retail deliveries. But by optimising delivery routes, the average Amazon or Tesco delivery van delivers the goods that people need while reducing traffic from consumers who no longer need to ‘pop to the shops’. This is a reminder that markets and technologies usually fix issues far more effectively and in ways that are more likely to be ‘win-win’ than Government does.
The rise of cycling, particularly within Conservative circles, has been over-hyped (you might even call it post-truth). It is true that the number of miles cycled has risen by 34 per cebt since 2000. But as the graph below shows, this increase has been from a very low number to another low number.
The number of miles travelled per person by car as passenger or driver stood at 5,150 compared to 53 miles by bicycle – around one per cent. Even this rise is basically due to a doubling of cycling in London (though it still only makes up a fraction of London miles travelled). In addition, summer travel by bike and motorbike was “over 75 per cent higher than in the winter months”, which reduces how far cycling helps at peak capacity. This is not to dismiss cycling, but to put it within the proper context.
More widely, after the congestion charge, which was a positive – although ideally it should have been balanced by cuts in fuel duty – London has become a poor template for transport policy. While the night tube has helped, central traffic speeds have now reached just eight miles per hour, while London as a whole has reached 17.4 miles per hour. Indeed, during the last year congestion has got so bad that bus journeys as well as car journeys are beginning to fall – a reminder that the anti-car brigade often end up being just anti-road.
Down with diesel and congestion, and up with housing – and autonomous and electric vehicles
We need to keep planning for a time when transport will be more pleasant and so more desired – not taking the Left’s route of making people’s lives so miserable driving that they stop. Cars will improve, becoming electric (and so quieter and less polluting) and eventually autonomous. Policy should help facilitate and accommodate this.
Longer term, we will need to switch from taxing fuel to taxing congestion, since the £33 billion raised from £27 billion in fuel duty and £6 billion in Vehicle Exercise Duty (VED) will have to be rethought. Given 36.7 million cars licenced on UK roads, this works out at nearly £1,000 for every car on UK roads. We will at least need to raise the £9 billion spent on the road network a year, though it will be harder to justify the entire remaining £27 billion over time, and we need to be thinking now not only about how to shift automobile taxation, but also how to reduce it in order to make such a change palatable.
Shorter term, we should levy a much higher VED on diesel purchases to try to reverse the disastrous rise in diesel cars (encouraged by Governments of all parties) and falling air quality. We cannot legitimately push up diesel prices at the pump, thereby penalising people who have only done what government encouraged and bought diesel cars – and some of the gimmicky micromanagement ideas proposed on reducing diesel in certain town centres are a bad bureaucrat’s dream and an ordinary person’s nightmare. It would be much simpler to raise some needed revenue, and simply increase tax on diesel cars (not fuel duty).
Moreover, transport and housing policy links need to keep on improving. If you really want housing, focus on road spending. Behind opposition to many homes is fear of congestion. The recent £2.3 billion fund for housing-related infrastructure announced by Sajid Javid is welcome, but needs to link effectively to long term transport planning, and not be rushed out of the door during the next three months. We need to be honest about car use if we are to bring people with us and back new homes. In addition, sustainable transport in planning can be hostile to car use, resulting in a lose-lose situation. The most recent case of this was a parish where the villagers actually wanted 30 homes but was refused because it did not have a frequent enough bus service – at a time when we are told the housing crisis is the biggest domestic issue facing the country. As ever, the devil is in the policy detail.
Overall, we should be unashamedly supportive of the car and motorist as we look to regroup and set out our stall for the future – whilst showing we have pragmatic plans to keep reducing the downsides of one of humanity’s greatest inventions.