The road to nowhere
Amid all the honking about congestion charges and anti-road pricing petitions, Britain's need for more roads is not even on the political map.
We no longer build new roads in the UK. But we are world-leaders in constructing endless debates about roads – arguments that seem to go round and round in circles getting nowhere, like a long afternoon on the M25. The fewer miles we actually add to the road network, it seems, the more mileage there is in engineering big political controversies out of mundane roads-related matters. We could surely do with a u-turn in priorities here.
After years of pootling around the political backstreets, for example, road pricing – a system of charging motorists for the mileage they do – has been driven to the top of the agenda. Last year the government-initiated Eddington Report declared the need for a national system of road-charging to be an unarguable necessity – or an ‘economic no brainer’ as former British Airways chief Rod Eddington put it.
Since then, no fewer than one-and-a-quarter million people – all of them presumably lacking a brain in the Treasury’s view – have signed an online protest against the plans for road-pricing on the government’s own petitions website. The idea that road-users are rising up against the authorities, over not only road-pricing but also congestion charges, speed cameras and the many other minor discomforts of driving, has reached the point where an unknown ‘disgruntled motorist’ was made the prime suspect for the recent spate of little letter-bomb attacks, with some even implying that the government was to blame for ‘driving him to it’.
These rows are a sign that politics is currently on the road to nowhere. There is a crying need for investment in major new roads in the UK, an advanced economy with a sub-European road network that, in the past 10 years, has built barely 150 miles of new motorway to support traffic growth of more than 30 per cent. Yet the demand for substantial new roads is not even on the table in the ‘great congestion debate’. Instead we are left with an argument over how motorists should be made to make do and mend with what exists, which is about as productive as two motorists yelling at one another through a fug of exhaust fumes.
The Eddington Report was the latest example of how the authorities now routinely deploy green politics as the language of eco-austerity. In the spirit of other New Labour reports, it effectively sought to redefine the aim of government transport policy as making Britain less mobile, by using financial penalties to drive people off the roads (at least the busy ones they want to use, at the times they most want to use them) rather than expanding capacity to meet demand. It is another testament to the triumph of the miserly politics of lowering people’s expectations.
Eddington suggests it is a no-brainer that we must have a national system of road-pricing, since the shock-horror alternative would be actually to invest in big new roads. He argues that smaller projects which fiddle with the existing system are best, and warns the government not to be seduced by ‘grand projects’ (he is preaching to the converted there), before driving his point home by concluding that ‘ambitions and dreams of extensive new networks…should be put aside…. Some of the best projects are small-scale, such as walking and cycling.’ That should get Britain moving!
As Austin Williams of the Future Cities Project has noted, what Eddington did was to reduce the planning of our future transport infrastructure to simple fiscal considerations, a crude cost-benefit analysis assuming the need for demand management (1). The wider needs of a modern, mobile society are discounted, any vision of a more free-travelling future dismissed as ‘dreams’. So at the same time as something as everyday as roads can be blown up into the stuff of political controversy, the issue can simultaneously be reduced to another of Gordon Brown’s mean-spirited bean-counting exercises. And in another sign of the miserabilist times, Eddington makes clear that motorists must be punished if they insist on driving about doing their business – or in New Labour-speak, they must be made to ‘feel the consequences of their decisions’.
A few months on from the publication of the Eddington Report, however, it would appear that the government’s attempt to start the road-pricing bandwagon has backfired. New Labour no doubt hoped that farming it out to ‘independent’ experts (even if they were handpicked by the Treasury) would allow it to remain aloof. But fuelled by scaremongering headlines about how much it might cost mothers to take their kids to school or do the shopping etc, public opposition to the government has quickly blown up around the online petition.
Comparisons with the anti-poll tax protests that helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher have been overstated. But as they are popularly understood, the road-pricing proposals would appear to have one similar effect to the hated poll tax – making people pay more for less. You do not have to be an economist to grasp that the government already takes around £45billion a year in taxes from road-users, and spends no more than £7billion of it on the roads. The apparent prospect of paying more tax, with no promise of new investment, could hardly have been better designed to disgruntle middle-class motorists as well as white van man.
It looks like a classic New Labour cock-up. Deeply worried about its isolation from the electorate, the government sets up this website for public petitions, presumably on the basis that for a self-proclaimed ‘listening government’, even having your policies complained about is better than being entirely ignored. Inevitably, however, given the breadth of cynicism about politics and government today, a big two-fingered protest soon emerges on the site – and perhaps equally inevitably, it is about the mundane stuff that seems to touch people’s lives rather than Iraq.
And if the anti-road pricing petition confirms the isolation of the political class from the public, the government’s response to it has made clear the deepening insecurity in Whitehall. No sooner had the million-signature petition started making headlines than ministers started suggesting there had been a misunderstanding and they wouldn’t be bringing in any system of road-pricing that the public does not support.
Remember, the Tory poll tax had been in force for some time before the protests and a major riot in central London caused a government crisis in 1990. Nowadays all it takes to unnerve the authorities is a ‘virtual barricade’ of an ephemeral online petition, at least five years before road-pricing could actually take effect. It appears that, in the last days of Tony Blair, New Labour has become even more shaky and bereft of a political sat-nav to guide it than when Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative regime was in its final throes in the Downing Street bunker.
Yet at root this is another phoney war that New Labour and its opponents are fighting. One thing that is very unlikely to result is any fundamental change of policy as regards those seductive ‘grand projects’ that Old Mother Eddington warned ministers about. The no-more-roads prejudice draws its authority from the green consensus that now extends pretty much across the mainstream political spectrum.
Although the likes of Tory leader David Cameron are now a prominent part of that consensus, it owes much of its strength to the old left. It was the rump of the left that helped to organise and support the anti-roads protests of the past 20 years, depicting motoring as an unnecessary evil and roads as a blot on the landscape. This attitude laid the foundations for today’s narrow ‘debate’ about how to restrict car travel; see for example the origins of London mayor Ken Livingstone’s ever-expanding congestion charge in his statement, almost 20 years ago, that he hated cars and would like to ‘ban the lot’.
The left’s enthusiastic embrace of the small-minded anti-road building lobby symbolised its political degeneration, its abandonment of the social – the progressive attempt to transform society through human action – in favour of the natural: the reactionary attempt to defend the environment against humanity.
In The Communist Manifesto, more than a century-and-a-half ago, Marx and Engels talked about the ‘wonders’ of industrial capitalism. Now those wonders are condemned as evils. An understanding that capitalism had both a dynamic and a destructive aspect was always fundamental to a radical left view. More recently, however, what remains of the left has come to see them as the same thing, and to attack such modern achievements as flying or mass mobility as crimes against the environment. Throw in an unhealthy dose of antagonism towards the ‘greedy’ cheap-flying, car-driving masses, and it becomes clear that while the left itself might have largely disappeared from the political roadmap, its misanthropic prejudices have done much to help consolidate the consensus against new road-building.
The fact remains, however, that our motorway-malnourished society needs bigger and better road networks, alongside a properly funded public transport system. We need far less effort to be put into constructing fuming rows about roads, and rather more into quietly building them.
In the current phoney war over road-pricing, New Labour might think itself well-advised to follow the old advice: when in a hole, stop digging. But the authorities would do us all a favour if they also took heed of some alternative advice. When in a jam, start digging – more motorways.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
(1) Rod Eddington’s unedifying proposals, Austin Williams, Future Cities Project
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