Alongside a squillion-pound debt pile, £146 million might not sound like much. But that lil ol’ numbered could add up to quite a lot today, at least politically speaking. It’s the amount of extra funding that the Government has found to help deal with one of the most iniquitous problems of the modern world: potholes.
Of course, it’s a particularly good time to start reaching for the Polyfilla and a trowel: the dastardly weather conditions have torn up the country’s roads. But the fact is, it’s always a good time to fill in potholes. They’re not exactly popular with anyone, least of all motorists. In fact, an AA survey, conducted in January, found that 91 per cent of folk would be more likely to support a party if that party pledged to fix the country’s potholes.
I doubt this finding will have escaped George Osborne’s notice – particularly when set aside others from the same survey. Apparently, 85 per cent of respondents would be better inclined towards a party if it promised to cut fuel duty. What’s more, only 14 per cent thought that the Tories were the most motorist-friendly party. Has the Chancellor been taking all that action on fuel duty for a relatively meagre political return, when people would simply prefer smoother roads?
None of this is to denigrate the various cuts and freezes that have been imposed on fuel duty. Robert Halfon was right all along: it’s a good tax to cut for both motorists and the wider economy. But there’s also a problem: fuel duty cuts are expensive for the Exchequer and may go largely unnoticed by the public. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Osborne will, by 2015, be pulling in £6 billion a year less than he would have done had he left fuel duty untouched. And the end result of all that lost tax revenue? A litre of premium unleaded cost, on average, about 121.18 pence in May 2010. Today it’s more like 130 pence.
Part of the problem is that petrol is taxed at such a high rate – around 60 per cent, when I last checked – that pennies here and there don’t make much difference. But there’s also the part of the cost that the Government can’t really influence, beyond calling a glorious global summit or two. As Osborne put it himself, in the most telling passage of his New Year address:
“…there’s no point pretending that there’s some magic wand a Chancellor can wave to make the whole country feel richer than it actually is, or that I can control the global oil price from an office in Whitehall.”
Which leaves something that the Government can control, albeit by transferring more money to local councils: potholes. Of course, the councils are today claiming that they’ll need a lot more than £146 million – £10 billion more, to be exact – to fill in all the country’s potholes. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get some of it, as part of a renewed Tory effort to appeal to motorists.