Saturday, 23 February 2013

The whining, wheedling voice of the motor lobby

Since soon after the automobile was invented, a constant, influential refrain in public policy debate has been that whining, wheedling voice of special pleading emanating from the motor lobby, insinuating that motoring is somehow uniquely linked to economic prosperity and national wellbeing – be it a case of lobbying for employment subsidies, or more motor infrastructure, or less taxation, or no more increases in taxation, or other subsidies for motoring. In modern times this voice has been run a close second by the equally whining voice of the air transport industry, but air transport is still a small part of the economy compared to King Car.

So it is that:
The Automobile Association (AA) is warning that rising petrol prices are forcing drivers off the road. 
The group is calling on the chancellor to cancel a planned rise on duty in September.
Paul Watters of the AA is the genuine whining, wheedling voice of the motor lobby. He tells us in this video, broadcast across all BBC's news outlets yesterday, as if it were a bad thing that:
Up to 70% of our members are cutting back on driving, or cutting back on spending, or doing both.
We know fuel prices are high, and this is linked to recession. If people are driving less, this is either linked to them having to drive less, for one reason or another (e.g. less work around), or them making smarter, more environmentally-friendly travel choices (including travelling less, or finding ways to do the same work with less travelling). The latter is a good effect that is being achieved by higher fuel prices.

But what is this "cutting back on spending" Mr Watters talks about? This is unclear. Does he mean cutting back on spending on fuel? That doesn't make sense, as he's also telling us that fuel is more expensive. He seems to be insinuating that high fuel prices cause less spending in the rest of the economy, and therefore lowering prices, or lessening the burden of tax, will benefit the economy: the classic plea to politicians from the cohort of the petrol-addicted.

Of course there is less spending in general, but this is because of the recession. A shift of taxation away from fuel would effectively be a subsidy towards imports, as most fuel is imported, requiring heavier taxation elsewhere in the domestic economy to balance it up, which would be more damaging to economic recovery. Lowering the tax burden on motorists will also imply raising it on non-motorists, people who are trying to do "the right thing" by environment (or just doing it accidentally or through force of circumstance), and be a perverse incentive.

Since in the UK however, the "motorist" is perceived to be the average person, this whining, wheedling plea is one that politicians traditionally find it almost impossible to resist.


  1. Watching a TV news item on fuel prices this evening, the message was clear – people will cut their food budget before they economise on petrol. So, they’ll eat horseshitburger at 12p a go in place of real meat before they’ll walk to the newsagent or cycle to the station in the morning. Two addictions for the price of one?

  2. Perhaps his members should cut back on their membership and buy a bike to save even more money! I am not sure what "membership" of the AA gives apart from breakdown assist and insurance. I guess they need members to keep on driving as membership seems a bit useless if you don't drive!

  3. One of the ways to increase household disposable income without resorting to dangerous fudges like the unsupported printing of more money is to get out of car ownership. This is something that many under 30 have realised and indeed some have gone a stage further and dropped out of car use. Typically a household giving up car ownership will see a nett increase in disposable income in the region of £2000-£3000 per year. This is the balance after the savings from not owning a very expensive 'asset' which is more like a liability, are put against the increased costs in bus, taxi, hired car, train and cycle use, and the modified habits in shopping and other activities to fit around not owning a car. In London car ownership is falling at an increasing rate with most Inner London Boroughs having a figure well under 50%, and Central Glasgow and Edinburgh having car ownership down at around 30% of households. After all having something that sits idle on average for over 95% of the time, and in inner cities, carries an additional cost for parking, reflecting the value of the land being less profitably used being demanded by car owners.

    Mr Watters has also quite possibly seen the writing on the wall, that the percentage of 17-25 year old's in possession of a driving licence has halved in the past decade, with many postponing the day when they consider sitting a driving test, and naturally that population will not need to join the AA, at a time when - eventually - the law and medical profession will seriously tackle the ageing population who continue to drive and lie about serous medical conditions the make then potential killers every time they get behind the wheel.

    As someone who as not owned a car for 37 years, I am certain that I would never want to own another one. I do drive, often over 5000 miles per year, and enjoy doing this in well maintained and near new cars. I do a lot of long distance domestic travel, largely by train, which tends to work out, using walk up fares at around a third of the cost of doing the journey by car (at 40p per mile), and as well as being faster, I'm more productive making phone calls, reading and writing, all of which I cannot do when driving a car.

    Last week I was at a conference in London for the day - an 804 mile round trip, which as a simple trip, could have been completed from leaving home, to returning there in under 18 hours. As it happened I made 3 calls on my way home, breaking the rail journey as the walk-up ticket permits, all for under £130 (in fact with my railcard - under £85). At 40p per mile the car costs would have been £320, and I could not have safely done the trip in less than 2 days, becoming a serious liability to the lives of myself and others through the driving at least 14 hours, through the night - the only way to achieve any reasonable journey times when driving, and that figure does not include parking, congestion charge and other incidentals. The sums work equally well for a more local 100 mile round trip across central Scotland - 50 minutes each-way by train with 10-15 minutes by bike <£1, taxi c.£6 x 2, or bus c.£4 (max)at a cost (full fare) of £22 (less for off-peak and specified routes, and substantially less if you use the competing express coaches, which have free wifi for the 70 minute journey). By car the journey at peak times can take over 1.5 hours including the hunt for a parking space, and the cost is £40 plus parking.

  4. Contd..

    There is a clear message to Mr Osborne to facilitate the option for many drivers to step off the treadmill of owning a car, and instead buy their travel from a single point of purchase, already arriving in some places through initiatives like Go-Ahead's Key card, and Nottingham's Kangaroo (hop on) 'bus' pass. The best example of the measure to take, is the Belgian version of the EU Car scrappage initiative. Instead of a £1000 government bung plus a maker persuaded to give a further £1000 discount on buying a new car, an equivalent of 3 years free bus travel plus deals on car club and bike leasing were offered to cushion the change from car owning to car using as part of a personal travel consumption plan, saving money in much the same way as people already do by seeking out the best suppliers of energy or telecomms services. Undo that lock George and you put spending power with thousands of households, without any need to increase the National wage bill or change the tax codes of those gaining the extra cash. But maybe that's just too simple.

  5. Car-free is fine! The Vole and I have never owned cars. Dad wrote off his car last year and has not driven since; he's fine about being car-free now and likes the estimated £6K he is saving. People justify having a car for their weekly shop but Sainsbury's delivers all I need for <£4. I'm not sad others are seeing the light.