The transport secretary’s oil addiction

If we want to make transport policy sustainable and equitable, it is vital that the price of transport is addressed and that this fuel price windfall is re-invested in more sustainable modes, making them more accessible to all.

The Tory Spring Conference last weekend provided an opportunity for the government to put their hands up and admit that plans to create the “greenest government ever” had not quite gone to plan. Today, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and climate change secretary Chris Huhne launched the Carbon Plan to ensure that “the whole of government is engaged in a joined-up effort to lead us into a low-carbon world”.

The Guardian reported the headline objectives and expected structure for the plan suggesting that:

“…non-governmental organisations, including Greenpeace, will be asked to play a monitoring role to ensure progress across each department is maintained.”

The timing of the Carbon Plan is key. Recent unrest in Libya has increased concern over the volatility of the oil market, not only at a time when government looks set to increase interest rates, but also in advance of the budget and within a context of evolving speculation on the likelihood of a Fair Fuel Stabiliser.

Oil prices showed no signs of falling after speculation continued that Saudi Arabia may join Libya in witnessing civil unrest – the fear of more violence and disruption of supply in the region pushed Brent Crude to $117.32 at the start of the week. US crude rose more than $2 to a 30-month high above $106.

So although the Carbon Plan is good news indeed, the underlying reality is that the government has little choice but to speed up contingency plans to wean the country off our “oil addiction”. And although unrest in the Middle East has forced the issue into headlines, the truth is that we have grossly underestimated peak oil with the US fearing that Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent prices escalating.

The chief oil addict in the cabinet, with several articles painting him as the minister opposed to the green movement and suggesting he would be subject to a level of eco-parenting from the cabinet, is Philip Hammond, who took a fairly substantial beating in last weekend’s press for his lack of green credentials.

Domestic transport is responsible for around 28 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK, with passenger cars being the main source. So the sector is bound to come under the lion’s share of scrutiny as the Carbon Plan develops and the cabinet rushes to bring on the great oil come down.

Hammond-bashing is unlikely to come to a halt immediately, indeed many of the green lobby groups are celebrating the opportunity to make the most of this ‘I told you so’ moment. But let’s not forget that our Mr Nasty isn’t all bad. He did after all ensure the third runway was “as dead as a Norwegian parrot” and (although for non-green reasons) killed off a number of road building schemes in October last year.

In all other matters, however, he does appear to be sailing against the eco-friendly wind.

The overall approach we’ve seen, wrapped up in the ending of the so-named “war against the motorist”, hasn’t been typical of 21st-century transport policy and in many cases appears to go against any progress made towards reducing transport’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Hammond has time and again taken us back to the 1980s with policies and proposals aimed to celebrate the car, pamper the motoring lobby and generally taking two steps back from ever achieving a sustainable approach towards domestic transport policy.

Day one on the job, Hammond declared an end to Labour’s 13-year war on the motorist, promising to:

“…end the way the country’s 33million drivers have been targeted by an array of speed cameras and cowboy clampers.”

One of the first steps taken by Hammond, alongside his pal Eric Pickles, was to reverse parking restrictions, put in place by the previous administration in 2001, that required councils to limit the number of parking spaces allowed in new residential developments and set high parking charges to encourage the use of alternative modes of transport.

He said:

“This is a key step in ending the war on the motorist. For years politicians peddled the pessimistic, outdated attitude that they could only cut carbon emissions by forcing people out of their cars.

“But this government recognises that cars are a lifeline for many people – and that by supporting the next generation of electric and ultra-low emission vehicles, it can enable sustainable green motoring to be a long-term part of Britain’s future transport planning.”

He failed to note that nearly a quarter of all car trips are under two miles and 56 per cent are less than five miles.

In January of this year Hammond waded into the fuel pricing issue, signalling there will be action to cut prices in March’s budget – just two weeks after the prime minister had said quite the opposite; underlying the complex nature of fuel pricing in such volatile times. Furthermore, research done by the Office for Budget Responsibility on Mr Cameron’s behalf underlined the impossibility of undertaking such steps.

Next up: speed limits. Hammond has floated the idea of increasing motorway speed limits from 70 to 80 mph. As Secretary of State for Transport in the ‘greenest government ever’, one would think Mr Hammond would know that at 80mph, Euro II petrol cars with engines between 1.4 litres and two litres will emit 25 per cent more CO2 than at 70mph.

Particularly given that his department is investing £560m in the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) designed to address the urgent challenge of climate change at a local level. The most puzzling part of the ideological conflict between Huhne’s Carbon Plan and Hammond’s pacification is that the 13 year war against the motorist is incredibly hard to pin down.

When the question of travel costs was recently raised in parliament, Norman Baker had to respond that data from the independent Office for National Statistics suggests that between 1980 and 2010 the real cost of motoring, including the purchase of a vehicle, declined by 10%, bus and coach fares increased by 54% and rail fares increased by 55% in real terms.

Similarly, ONS data suggest that between 1997 and 2010 the real cost of motoring, including the purchase of a vehicle, declined by 7%, bus and coach fares increased by 24% and rail fares increased by 17% in real terms.

So in reality, was there ever a war against the motorist? It seems not. The concern that really ought to be raised is that the British public have been priced out of making a choice. As the price of motoring has fallen and public transport has become more expensive, the ‘squeezed middle’ (or whatever we call them today) has lost the opportunity to make a choice about how they travel.

As a result, transport policy has tended to prioritise or at least assume the necessity of car travel thus excluding those members of society who do not have access to a car.

If we want to make transport policy sustainable and equitable, it is vital that the price of transport is addressed and that this fuel price windfall is re-invested in more sustainable modes, making them more accessible to all.

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