Fuel poverty and social inequality should be the focus – not fuel cost

The debate on the ‘Fuel crisis and the cost of living’ in Parliament yesterday, unsurprisingly, placed focus on the cost of fuel rather than letting fuel poverty and social inequality take centre stage, writes Eleanor Besley.

Fuel duty and VAT increases always make for great political bun fighting in the week before a budget, but yesterday’s opposition day debate failed to excite. The focus continues, understandably, to fall on the short-term issues around the cost of fuel  but fails to take a bigger picture perspective and look long-term at oil dependency, fuel poverty and the evident lack of choice available to the British public.

The debate on the ‘Fuel crisis and the cost of living’ offered an opportunity for Labour to make up for the clever but much criticised proposal from Ed Balls this weekend which called on government to drop the planned rise in VAT on fuel.

However, Eagle vs. Greening yesterday afternoon was all round disappointing. “Notably scratchy,” said Bercow, but the real concern is that the debate, unsurprisingly, placed focus on the cost of fuel rather than letting fuel poverty and social inequality take centre stage.

The Chancellor, absent from the proceedings, is under mounting political and public pressure to announce some relief for drivers in the Budget.

He is expected to scrap the 1p per litre above inflation rise in fuel duty planned by the previous Labour government but is increasingly less likely to bring in a mechanism to protect motorists from future rises in world oil prices – a fair fuel stabiliser.

But are we missing the bigger picture behind the immediate crisis? Peak Oil is or has arrived, climate change is happening, Middle Eastern unrest is current and the UK’s dependency on oil is certain – but instead of looking for a way to wean ourselves off the oil drip before we’re forced to go cold turkey, we’re having a political row about the price of petrol tomorrow; perhaps with good reason – we don’t really have much choice about how we travel so our society is reliant on free-flowing oil.

The concern that really ought to be raised is that the British public has been priced out of making a choice.

As the price of motoring has fallen and public transport has become more expensive, the squeezed middle has lost the opportunity to make a choice about how they travel. By removing transport choice and forcing a direct dependency on oil, governments have directly penalised the middle and lower income families and we’re only just beginning to realise how dramatic the impact will be.

Being able to access and afford oil has become a necessity, so the price hikes will be felt by all.

It’s not just oil dependency we need to manage. The current transport system fails to tackle congestion, compounds on increasingly poor health, is detrimental to the state of the environment and excludes those people who do not have access to a car.

Of course there are some journeys which need to be made by car and which will continue to require private motorised transport, at least in the foreseeable future. But 23 per cent of car journeys are less than two miles long and 56 per cent less than five miles and government should be focusing on making it possible for the majority of those journeys to be  made by other modes such as walking, cycling and public transport.

And there are a whole host of journeys we make for example to the out of town supermarket or to the post office in the next town – which could be removed from oil dependency if we looked more holistically at policy decisions.

Land use planning, investment from health, and a more coherent understanding of school travel are all policy areas which could significantly reduce the number of journeys we currently need to make by car.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.