Rishi Sunak seems to have concluded that adopting macho anti-environment policies across the board could be a vote winner
Last week the PM took a helicopter to Norwich to meet housebuilders Taylor Wimpey and announce that water protection measures need to be swept away
Opportunist. Unprincipled. Shameful. Shameless. Desperate.
Choose your adjective to describe the full frontal attack on environmental policies now coming from the prime inister and his cabal of fanatical advisers holed up in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.
For a couple of years now, the Conservatives have recognised that electoral disaster at the next General Election beckons, with the polls and by-election results offering no respite. Then suddenly there is a straw to grasp at.
Against nearly all expectations, the Tories scraped home in one by-election, in Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge, the by-election having become to a degree a referendum on Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ scheme.
Never mind that the ULEZ concept was one rolled out by former London mayor Boris Johnson (yes, him again) and that Khan was encouraged down that track in his negotiations with the government for a funding package for London. That was then and this, apparently, is now.
So Sunak has, it seems, concluded that adopting macho anti-environment policies across the board could be a vote winner
So Sunak has, it seems, concluded that adopting macho anti-environment policies across the board could be a vote winner, even though ULEZ expansion was a narrow issue affecting barely any constituencies and of no interest to people in Walsall or West Wittering. We are back to the Osborne days of “getting rid of the green crap”. And in transport terms we are back to ending the “war on the motorist”.
The tired old “war on the motorist” mantra was last heavily deployed by my old boss, Philip Hammond, back in 2010 (though I studiously and politely declined invitations to use it).
It sounded jaded then, and even more so now, with climate change visible for all to see.
And what war, you may ask? After all, we have had a fuel duty freeze for about 12 years now, indeed even a generous “temporary” cut, while rail fares and bus fares have risen inexorably over the same period.
Stupid Vehicle Excise Duty reforms introduced after the coalition by Osborne (yes, him again) encouraged the adoption of bigger, heavier vehicles, ugly clunky box giants now commonly deployed to take Tarquin 200 yards to school and back each day, vehicles so large they no longer fit in supermarket parking spaces.
Meanwhile, business secretary Kemi Badenoch is rumoured to be pushing back on the government’s plan to fine car manufacturers if they fail to meet the target of making at least 22% of the cars they sell electric by 2024.
The £27bn road-building programme remains intact, despite all the evidence, going back to the then Department of Transport’s 1994 report from the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA) and beyond, that more road capacity simply generates more traffic.
You can’t build your way out of a traffic jam. As Cliff Richard (yes, Cliff amazingly) sang in a surprisingly forward-looking track in 1970 called The Joy Of Living:
“They’re pulling down more houses every day
To give the family car more room to play
And won’t it be grand
When the whole of the land
Is one big motorway”
Just look at Birmingham which has had more money spent on roads than almost anywhere else and where the traffic problems are some of the worst in Britain. Thankfully the local politicians in our second city are now bravely trying to undo decades of damage.
Or look at those towns like Newbury where by-passes were supposed to take traffic away from the centre, and note how traffic levels in the centre are now back to, or sometimes surpassing, those that existed pre-bypass.
In fact the real enemy of the motorist is the failure to invest properly in good public transport alternatives. For example, bus lanes that offer quicker journeys into the city centre make a shift to the bus attractive for the car driver. And for those who do not want to shift, well suddenly there are fewer cars on the road to compete with and less congestion. As we know, a bus can hold up to 90 passengers, potentially 90 fewer cars on that route from just one bus journey.
I actually feel sympathy for those ministers in government who understand the need for investment in public transport, who are committed to serious action to tackle climate change, who are working to deliver the government’s official policy of net zero
I actually feel sympathy for those ministers in government who understand the need for investment in public transport, who are committed to serious action to tackle climate change, who are working to deliver the government’s official policy of net zero, and who has to a large degree, had the rug pulled from underneath them by the prime minister.
I feel particularly sorry for Mark Harper and Huw Merriman at the DfT who are two of the best ministers in government, but who are suddenly finding No 10 taking a close and unwelcome interest in transport. The difference, even chasm between them, is that the DfT ministers are trying to deliver transport improvements. No 10 is only interested in weaponising transport in an attempt to wrong-foot Labour ahead of next year’s election and to enthuse the Tory base.
It is of course nothing new for No 10 or No 11 to grab hold of the policy reins from a department without usually even consulting the relevant secretary of state. I saw it in my time both as a Transport and as a Home Office minister.
What is particularly frustrating is that those at the centre who pull rank – especially the spotty 22 year-old special advisers – invariably know less about the issue at hand than people in the relevant department, but always think they know more.
The DfT in my day took care to try to evaluate road schemes carefully, to produce a fair benefit-cost ratio that took into account all factors including environmental ones. Indeed the mechanism was actually improved jointly by Philip Hammond and me.
I recall at the time we had about 39 local road schemes on the books, all carefully evaluated, and some of which the analysis showed should never be built. Bottom of the list, by the way, was the very expensive and almost totally useless so-called Hastings-Bexhill link road.
But what use was all that careful analysis? For one day we had a call from the office of the chancellor, George Osborne. What road schemes did we have on the books? In the budget that followed shortly afterwards, Osborne announced the go-ahead for all of them, just to get a quick headline that would disappear soon after like a will-o’-the wisp. I did manage to hold up the Hastings-Bexhill scheme for a year or more, but it finally got built.
It was the same at the Home Office. A pub had opened on the M40 selling pints to motorists. This was clearly not a good idea. I suggested to home secretary Theresa May that we should ban pubs on motorways and she agreed. But then the PM, David Cameron, found out and blocked the move.
Such is the lack of support now at No 10 that they cannot find the enthusiasm even to give the green light to the legislation required to establish Great British Railways. This idea, set out now years ago in the Williams plan (Shapps has been quietly deleted), has been welcomed by industry, given the thumbs up by the Treasury, and requires only a short Bill of about 10 clauses to enact. This Bill, already written, is unlikely to be opposed by any party in the House and could sail through in a couple of days.
The excuse that there has been no parliamentary time is ludicrous, with the House regularly adjourning early, even on Mondays. DfT ministers, who are clearly desperate for the legislation, must be tearing their hair out, especially as they are left to parrot the non-excuses for the Bill’s non-appearance.
Let me be clear. There is a dereliction of duty by No 10, and one which leaves the whole rail industry in limbo, not least the shadow team at GBR who are running up a big bill for the taxpayer in the meantime.
Moreover, from the Conservative point of view, it makes no political sense. If there is any division of opinion on the merits of the Bill, it is likely to be between the pragmatists and the nationalisation obsessives on the Labour benches. And if no Bill appears before the election, then the Conservatives are leaving a blank piece of paper for an incoming Labour government to write on, and what they write may well be less amenable to the Tories than the GBR model waiting in the wings.
We even now have MPs from the party of law and order encouraging acts of criminal damage to destroy and remove ULEZ cameras
And so the anti-environment rhetoric gets louder, especially on the far right, but very influential fringe of the Tory Party. We even now have MPs from the party of law and order encouraging acts of criminal damage to destroy and remove ULEZ cameras. The Met has lodged 510 crimes related to ULEZ cameras in the last six months.
Beyond transport, we saw last week the PM take a helicopter (of course) to Norwich to meet housebuilders Taylor Wimpey and announce that longstanding and essential water protection measures that are in place to stop river quality deteriorating any further need to be swept away. Apart from anything else, this is politically inept. The Tories are already upsetting their own supporters over the issue of sewage discharges.
In addition, a cursory study of history over the last couple of decades will easily reveal that housebuilders always claim that removing this or that regulation will unblock the path to more houses being built. Actually, all it does is boost profits. Housebuilders are already sitting on a mountain of permissions that they have yet to enact.
Then there is the proposal to max out the North Sea with a bonanza of new oil and gas development, the new coal mine in Cumbria, and up and coming the rejection of the recommendation that there should be no more airport expansion. And the rest.
We can only hope that after the Tories lose the next election, they are left with a sufficient number of sensible MPs able to reclaim their party and ditch this madness, and a Labour government with more courage to do the right thing than presently appears to be the case.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!