The confusion that is transport policy

If you live in Coventry, it’s cheaper to drive to London than go by train, but if you live in Honeybourne, the train is cheaper. Stratford on Avon District Council this year threatened to impose parking charges on places like Alcester that don’t have a parking problem. In the evenings, on-street parking is free, but off-street parking, where you aren’t cluttering up the roads, is chargeable. And, woe betide you if you miss the hard to read signs, as I did shortly after they changed to evening charging (there was no sign to say that it had changed) — Stratford makes more money from the fines than it does from the charges.

The Transport Select Committee, it seems, agrees that transport policy is in disarray. It’s, of course, convenient to blame this on Labour (who are conveniently placed for many kinds of blame), but it transport policy has been in disarray for years. Barbara Castle, for those with long memories, was the one who shut down lots of the commuter and village railway stations. And Margaret Thatcher, famously, sold off the railways as a way to break the power of the unions. At the same time, lots of Labour local authorities across the country imposed the first of punitive parking regimes as a way of punishing motorists into behaving themselves.

Since then, motorists have been told that their road taxes, parking, petrol charges, and, increasingly, parking and speeding fines, are going up for all kinds of things — to save the environment, to pay for the roads, to support road safety, to manage congestion, to shift people onto public transport, to regenerate town centres, for cleaner air, for faster transits. The list goes on.

Does anybody really believe any of it?

It is disappointing that motorists no longer trust the government on transport policy. But the government has probably learned to live with mistrust now. More importantly, it seems that there is no longer a consensus within the various strands of government about what transport policy is trying to achieve. Nor much idea from the possible next government: David Cameron’s crew got very stroppy when petrol prices went up, and complained that this meant fewer road journeys, but it was their own Kenneth Clarke who introduced the fuel escalator with this very purpose. Do we worry that fewer car journeys will damage the economy, or do we worry that the endless increase in petrol consumption makes us ever more dependent on the rest of the world for oil?

Here’s another one. Until recently, diesel was more expensive in the UK than petrol. Why? Why do we tax diesel engines, which are 20% more fuel efficient (and therefore better for the environment) than petrol engines, in this way? Previously, diesel particulates were understood to be worse for pollution levels. But these are now filtered and the filtering strictly monitored through the MOT test.

And another — the new, much more expensive road tax for larger cars only affects newer larger cars. If you’ve got an old car, burning oil along with fuel as it chugs unhealthily along the road, then you pay less. But old cars are less fuel efficient and less safe. And another one — the Inland Revenue approved mileage rate is 40p per mile for the first 10,000 business miles, but only 5p per passenger: little in the way of incentive to car-share.

Until we can work out, as a nation, and agree it across local and national government, what transport policy is for, we will never work out what it should be.

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