The ‘war on motorists’ – otherwise known as the common sense attempt to protect, to the tiny extent that has been politically palatable, people’s rights to walk safe streets, breathe clean air, conserve some semblance of natural resources and a habitable environment and recoup some of society’s huge hidden subsidy to motorists – is apparently over.
The removal of national maximum parking standards for residential development, and the deletion of a few words from a national planning policy statement on the role of parking charges in restraining demand for car travel, are so minor that they hardly justify the overblown rhetoric. As much as I disagree with their thrust, however, the changes are undoubtedly localist, and this will be evident in their varied effects. It’s obvious, for example, that for every council that reduces charges to make their town centres more competitive as Eric Pickles urges, another will hike charges as a backdoor source of revenue: despite a prohibition on this in the guidance, Pickles’ much-vaunted hands-off approach will make it difficult to interfere.
But the broader trend is built on some disturbing assumptions and viewpoints. Financially speaking, as we have seen before, the war on motorists is entirely fictitious: other modes of transport consistently cost more than driving, and the gap is widening, while the public costs of providing land to probably the least space-efficient form of transport ever invented are huge. The taxes such as fuel duty that have seen resentment from many motorists are still present for other forms of transport, such as buses – they’re just hidden within rising ticket prices.
More insidiously, the ‘war on motorists’ lie perpetuates the idea that people have no responsibilities whatsoever – beyond getting to work on time – and can essentially do whatever they wish as long as they can pay for it. The prime example is the effort to make 2011 ‘the year of the electric car‘. The idea that the car is here to stay, so we might as well make it as green as possible, is unbelievably myopic. Electric cars still have to be produced, at great expense, considerable environmental impact – particularly from building and disposing of batteries – and little benefit to UK manufacturing. The electricity still has to be generated – largely from fossil fuel sources. Congestion will continue unabated – maybe even worsening as people who consider themselves ‘green’ feel vindicated in getting back on four wheels. Though the UK has a good record on road safety compared to many other European countries, over 2500 people were still killed by cars in 2009 alone.
Perhaps most tellingly for this government’s programme, the fallacy that environmental crises can be tackled through consumer choice alone will be upheld. A handy £5000 non means-tested grant from the government will bring this marvel of social change a few inches closer to the same people who’d be able to afford one anyway, leaving everyone else stranded in poorly planned, sprawling sub-American identikit suburban hells where people would literally starve within a week if it wasn’t for the out of town Tesco superstore.
Driven by the recession and the high uptake of the car scrappage scheme, 2010 was the only year since the Second World War in which the number of cars on the road has fallen, with the total now standing at over 31 million. Traffic gridlock – whether the resultant emissions are spewed from exhausts or out of sight and mind in distant power stations – is both a social and a market failure, the absolute antithesis of a localist vision where people come together to solve their common problems, perhaps through collective decision-making on how to keep an area’s total greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions to an acceptable minimum. How quickly the freedom of the car can turn to the tyranny of the traffic jam. By pandering to a fictional tabloid vision of an elite attacking the natural liberties of motorists and thus absolving them of responsibility for their own actions, the Government has elided any concept of collective responsibility. If the Big Society is real, its proponents should be quite annoyed about this.
The Transport Secretary’s contention that ‘we can have all the convenience of the car without all the carbon that normally goes with it’ looks too good to be true, because it is. As the licenced puncturers of impossible pipe-dreams, and the champions of personal responsibility (‘get on your bike’!), true Conservatives should consider speaking out against this red herring masquerading as a green revolution.