1st October 2000
In the history of human liberation the motor car must count as a significant leap forward. During the first half of the 20th century the car was a luxury item enjoyed by the rich. In the decades after the second world war it became a primary source of mobility for almost everybody. It profoundly affects where we live, how we live, how we work, and how we play. We are heavily car dependent-a source of pleasure and of pain. We know that cars cause problems: congestion, accidents, CO2 emissions contributing to global warming. The question is how best to overcome these anti-social effects.
Public support for last month’s Europe-wide fuel blockades shows that popular attachment to the car is undiminished. Tolerance for higher fuel taxes has reached breaking point, long before the goal of reduced car use has been achieved.
In the 1990s, the Conservatives highlighted poor air quality and global warming to justify the introduction of an annual fuel duty escalator of 5 per cent. But higher fuel taxes neither discouraged car use nor reduced emissions. Car dependence is so great that the motorist simply pays up rather than driving less. The escalator has become a big source of government revenue, but a sham as an instrument of environmental policy. This is the problem with the green’s encouragement of taxing “bads.” Governments rely on the revenue to such an extent that they depend on us continuing to be bad.
An even more serious problem for social democrats is the unfairness of high fuel tax. The very poorest in society do not have cars. That is usually a reflection of their low income, not their aspirations. But within the car-owning population, high fuel taxes fall hardest on the poorest. In rural areas, low-income car owners are spectacularly penalised. They are the most car-dependent of all, with the least access to public transport, and they travel the longest distances. High fuel tax is flagrantly regressive. If it worked it would have the effect of giving back to the rich the empty road space they enjoyed in the 1920s and the 1930s.
The centre-left needs consistent arguments in favour of fair and efficient tax. Fuel tax has been unfair and inconsistent. Labour reduced the Tories’ rate of VAT on domestic fuel for social justice reasons. The same argument should have been applied to the fuel…