Democratising mobility

Shortly before parliament rose for the summer, an unusually large audience tuned in to the entertaining spectacle of Prime-Minister’s Question Time in a week when a scandal-rag had sunk in its own great scandal. I don’t suppose anybody noticed the interruption of David Ward, the hon. member for Bradford East. Ward, a Liberal Democrat backbencher loyal to the coalition (who voted for the higher university tuition fees and previously spoke against education maintenance allowance), who stood on this occasion to ask the PM a friendly question about what he was doing to help young people in need:

Mr Ward: …perhaps we can just have a pantomime interval for a moment. Is the Prime Minister aware that there are now young people in Bradford being quoted, without convictions or claims, £53,000 to insure their first car? These ridiculous premiums are being driven by insurance companies selling fresh details to personal injury lawyers. What are we going to do to outlaw—

Mr Speaker: Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister:My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the problem of referral fees that are driving up the cost of insurance for many people. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has made some very powerful points about this. There was a report to the Government calling for referral fees to be banned. I am very sympathetic to this, and I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary is too, and we hope to make some progress.

The nation just can’t afford to support young people who want the luxury of further and higher education — there is the human right of the personal motor car to be supported.

After all, if the government doesn’t support the driver, what else do you suggest young people do? Become a freeloading cyclist who doesn’t pay for the road? Use that heavily subsidised public transport?

David Ward’s question referred specifically to the referral fees paid by lawyers for personal injury claimants (and we could perhaps be permitted to question whether the ability to claim compensation for the loss and hardship caused by the actions of others isn’t, in fact, a good thing) but these fees are, of course, just one of many factors which contribute to the cost of insurance, and insurance is, of course, just one of many factors which contribute to the cost of motoring. And the cost of motoring was, at least up until the economy tanked, at a historic low.

The problem with the cost of motoring is not that it is high, but that so many people think, rightly or wrongly, that they have to pay it. That individuals say they can’t find work if they don’t have a car, and business can’t grow without a fleet of vehicles for moving stuff around. The prime-minister should not be concerned by the fact that it is so difficult to get around by car. He should be concerned by the fact that it is so difficult to get around without one. The fact that this issue is championed by the member for Bradford East, a dense urban area with all of the West Yorkshire conurbation inside a ten mile radius, only highlights the scale of this scandal.

Volkswagen once boasted that the Beetle had “democratised mobility” by cutting the cost of owning and running a car. But mass motoring has achieved the opposite: enslaving those who have, and taking mobility away from those who have not. The most deprived and disenfranchised have never owned cars, and the rise of mass motoring merely took away their options — the bicycle, the bus, and the local shops and services.

The Tories think that the solution to unemployment and rioting is to “get on your bike and look for work.” In a sense they’re right — albeit, not the crude one that they meant. The economy tanked because we’ve built ourselves into a tight dependency on an unstable resource. If we made the changes that would give people the choice to use the bicycle again, our economy would be healthier and more stable, and our society more egalitarian. Not because people could get on their bikes to look for work, but because we would be less dependent on the wasteful use of an expensive and diminishing resource, and because, if we could all make more of our journeys by a mode that costs almost nothing, mobility would truly be democratised.