Tag Archives: road tax

Motorists are welcome to the roads they pay for

So George Osborne has decided that the money raised from Vehicle Excise Duty — “road tax” — should for the first time in 80 years be ringfenced for spending on roads, through Highways England (the recently rebranded Highways Agency). CityMetric think this sends a message telling motorists that they own the roads, and the Guardian Bike Blog is worried that it will increase the already prevalent sense of entitlement to bully other road users.

You can have your motorways

I think it’s brilliant. Osborne has “given” motorists the roads that they already own — those roads that sane people long ago stopped using with anything but a motor vehicle. And that makes it a perfect time to take back the rest of them.

This is the Highways England road network. Motorways and motorways-in-all-but-name.

highwaysSo if this tax sends a message it’s exactly the right one: you pay for the motorway network. Want to own the road? Bugger off to your motorway. The county A roads, borough B roads, city streets and country lanes are not yours.

By ringfencing the tax for Highways England, Osborne has made it much plainer that motoring taxes don’t come close to paying for the costs and harms that motoring accrues, and has emphasised that because streets and lanes and other lesser roads are run by the local council, motorists outside the motorway network are actually being subsidised by the rest of us.

His message fits neatly with a related one: “roads were not built for cars”. Because this tax is largely going to roads which were built for cars. The two combine to say: these motorways are the roads for cars; everywhere else you’re a guest benefiting from the generosity of local council tax payers. Motorists can take the motorways. In return, they need to start giving something back.

Sleight of hand

By giving the Highways Agency greater autonomy as Highways England and at the same time setting it up with an income stream, the worry for many is that Osborne is creating the conditions for a motorway building boom that can’t be traced back to government decisions when it inevitably proves to be extremely unpopular.

But I’m not sure we should be so worried.

It costs Highways England just under £4 billion per year to run the motorway network, including the small number of capital projects — junction rebuilds, carriageway widening, new technology, and the rare new length of road.

Very neatly, the road tax is expected to raise just a little over £4 billion per year for Highways England. CJZJJWKUwAAYjcO

Previously motorists paid £4 billion into the Treasury, and £4 billion found its way from the Treasury to Highways England via the Department for Transport. Now motorists will pay £4 billion into Highways England. There’s a bit less democratic oversight but otherwise nothing has changed.

It seems unlikely that Highways England would be able to greatly increase the scale of its road building activity without either borrowing money or, if a chancellor is feeling brave, receiving additional specific grants — either of which would further emphasise the extent to which motorists fail to cover their costs, the expense of road construction, and look embarrassing when repeatedly referred to in the inevitable backlash.

The clever thing Osborne has done, though, is delay the official introduction of this system until 2021. And even then it will take time for the new system to get embedded. So it will probably be a decade before those petrolheads expecting Osborne’s road tax announcement to lead to a massive road building boom realise that they’ve been had and that the tax only just covers the existing annual expenditure.

What really matters

You might have noticed that I’m not taking this thing all that seriously. I don’t think it will make much difference. Petrolhead pricks who need to dress in a metal shell to bully people will bully people regardless of whether they can cite some tax-based sense of entitlement in the sentences they attempt to string together. And a road building boom remains as dependent on the political will to be seen borrowing and spending on such unpopular projects as it ever did.

But the announcement perhaps isn’t entirely irrelevant. It creates another opportunity to make the serious point: there are some motorways for accommodating through motor traffic, and there are some streets and lanes that clearly aren’t. But at the moment most of our roads fall somewhere between the two, and aren’t fit for purpose because we’re trying to make them be too many things at once.

Osborne has decided, correctly, that motorways are for motoring. Now we need to look at the rest of our roads — the ones that belong to us all — and decide for each of them how best to make them do their job, because right now they aren’t working.

“Driving has never cost more”

End to the war on the motorists?  No, driving’s never cost more,” declares Mark King, Money Editor, in The Observer today.  To be fair to King, he doesn’t actually say anything as absurd as that driving has “never cost more” in his article — but newspaper headline writers have never let reality or the actual content of an article get in their way.

Why would a headline writer, having glanced at a boring but reasonable article about saving money, think to write “driving’s never cost more”?  Where did they get that idea from?

Are cars more expensive than ever?

You would guess not: the manufacturing process has become vastly more efficient over the decades.  But it was really difficult to find data on this.  By difficult, I mean Google, Google Scholar, Wikipedia and WolframAlpha all failed to find anything useful with my keywords (thanks perhaps to the hundreds of excellently search engine optimised spam sites), and I’m too lazy to do proper research.  Instead, I pulled out a quick and crude graph of the US consumer price index for new cars compared to that for all items, showing how the cost of purchasing a car has fallen compared to general inflation in the cost of living.  (Obviously there is a plethora of caveats with this data and the contributory factors to the cost of living over here are quite different to the US — if anybody can find a more appropriate data set, please let me know.  Data from the UK for 1997-2009 is given further down the page, and shows a massive fall in the price of a new car even over that short time.)

Is fuel more expensive than ever?

Mark King could have read his own newspaper to find out that, no, fuel is not more expensive than ever.  Fuel prices are high, and Motorists can’t hide from the fact that dwindling resources are ever more difficult and dangerous to harvest.  They’re at the top-end of the post-war range, but not outside of the range that we should be used to:

That must be because oil is getting cheaper, right?  Because everybody knows that fuel tax is always going up.  Actually, as Mark King’s own editor pointed out in October, thanks to repeated freezes in fuel tax to appease the tabloids and roads lobby fuel duty remained 11% down on 1999 rates when inflation was taken into account.

So the price-per-litre is high but not exceptional.  But during all that time, the amount of distance you can get for that litre has been rising as cars get more fuel efficient.  Wikipedia has a graph for average fuel efficiency of car models available in the US.  (Average fuel efficiency of cars on the road, in the UK at least, will be higher and may not follow exactly the same trend, because we purchase more cars at the high end of the fuel efficiency range.)  You may be paying a little bit more each time you fill up, but unless you are driving further, you should have found yourself filling up less frequently over the years.

What about the other costs?

Is it more expensive than ever to pay your “road tax“?  Only if you have a really absurd car.  You could pay £950 in the first year of owning a car that emits over 255 g/km CO2.  But only expensive SUVs and sports cars fall into that category — if you own such a car, you are already rich enough to not notice the tax.  Normal cars fall in the top three or four tax bands, where tax has fallen and owners will pay only a token amount of tax, if they pay anything at all.

I couldn’t find much information on maintenance and insurance costs — though I didn’t try very hard, since these are not a significant proportion of overall costs anyway.  If anybody can find good data, I’ll add these to the post.

One area where “costs” might be rising is in depreciation — the decline in resale value.  People aren’t buying second hand cars so much, for all sorts of reasons — because new cars are so cheap (especially during the scrappage scheme and with all the other government subsidies) to the fact that nobody who buys second hand cars wants an old inefficient SUV.

So driving is more expensive than ever?

Mark King (or his headline writer) could have read his own newspaper to see that the Department for Transport estimate that the cost of driving fell 9% between 1980 and 2007.  Alternatively they could have read the Economist last month, which estimated an even more dramatic fall in the cost of driving — especially compared to the rise in disposable income — even during Labour’s famous “War On The Motorist”:

A lot of things happened in the past 18 months, but it’s not plausible to suggest that this trend has completely reversed.

Why do so many people think driving is more expensive than ever?

I don’t think they do.  Most people who are complaining are trying their luck.  Some of it is recall bias — they just don’t accurately remember how expensive cars and fuel used to be.  Some of it is the fact that the costs which are falling — annual VED and upfront vehicle purchase — are one-off or rare payments that one forgets about, unlike the weekly payment at the petrol pump, even though for most people the cost of the vehicle still makes up the bulk of the cost of driving.  Some of it is the Daily Express, the Taxpayer’s Alliance, and the rest of the roads lobby talking bollocks about the poor hard done by Motorist.  But, really, most of the car users I know are complaining about the costs no more or less than they always have.

What is probably true is that motoring is a painful cost for many people.  But paradoxically, it’s the fall in the cost of motoring that has caused this problem.  During the good times of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, more and more people have built themselves into a car dependency.  Car ownership is higher than ever because the cost has been falling for so long.  And so, with everybody owning a car, our houses have moved further from our work places, our village shops and services have closed, and the bus service has been withdrawn.  This in turn pushes more people to buy and run a car, even if they can not really afford to do so and were quite happy living without one until the shops closed.  And when the good times turn bad — when wages are frozen, when office locations are merged, and when redundancies are handed out — you can not simply give up the car.  The world changed.

Driving is not more expensive than ever.  Fuel is not more expensive than ever.  Not even fuel tax is more expensive than ever.  Claims that they are don’t even come close to reflecting reality.  And for most people, the fall in the cost of vehicles is far more significant than the cost of fuel.

Rather, ever more people who can not really afford it have been conned by false promises of the aspirational and “liberating” car lifestyle or forced into car dependency against their will.  And the tabloid media and Motoring lobby want to capture the few who are left.  Our politicians and planners should be liberating poor and rural people from that expensive car dependency, not keeping them captive right on the threshold of what they can afford.

This is a hastily thrown together blog not a scholarly article — if you spot something not quite right, do let me know so that it can be corrected.

I don’t pay road tax

The I Pay Road Taxcampaign has done an excellent job of reaching out to cyclists.  Every cyclist now knows that “road tax” was abolished in the 1930s, that what motorists pay is “vehicle excise duty”, and that VED goes to the treasury and not directly to the highways agencies.  So when a white van man cuts them up and shouts something about paying tax at them, the cyclist can shout back something about zero-rated bands, carbon emissions, and Edwardian legislation.  Which is the perfect response to a dangerous nutter who is shouting at you: make yourself look more dangerously insane than your opponent.

Of course, the campaign completely misses the point — especially from the Motorist’s point of view.  Which is why, in all the bottle-throwing videos, the cyclist’s cringe-inducingly earnest attempts to explain the detailed content of treasury memos from 1926, are met with blank stares and swear words from the Motorist.  What matters to the Motorist is that they are paying a lot of money to drive — and they are paying a lot of money to drive — while the cyclist is paying a negligible amount to cycle.  The Motorist doesn’t care about the exact terminology of the fees that they’re paying, or which government department is processing the payment.  These details are irrelevant to the issue.

As a campaign to educate cyclists in historical legislative trivia, it’s brilliant.  As a campaign to change the attitudes of dangerously childish and spoilt Motorists, and facilitate peaceful considerate coexistence, it is, at best, useless.

Here are some suggestions for things to say when a Motorist tells you that they paid for the road:

  1. Oh?  I hadn’t actually put it up for sale –or– so I can shit on your doorstep if I pay the government £5?
  2. Not nearly as much as it’s worth.
  3. No, 97% of that was the wanker tax, you’re still behind on the road payments.

The first encapsulates an issue that is rarely raised: that these are our streets, the neighbourhoods and environments in which we have to live and work.  If you think you’ve “bought” them from the government then you’ve been conned: they were never the government’s to sell.  Motorists are a minority of London commuters — perhaps it would be fair for their subscriptions to pay for some sort of limited segregated infrastructure for motor vehicles, proportionate to their community.  But the rest of the streets, the majority of the streets and streetspace, should belong to the majority of the population — a majority who are not trying to fill it with inappropriate transport.  I Pay Road Tax seems in places to be struggling to vocalise exactly these points, but doesn’t quite seem to be able to get it out.

The second is that Motoring and Motorism doesn’t have a single cost.  Talk about “road tax” and people will say that they’re paying for road construction and repair.  Talk to the slightly more sophisticated Motorists about “vehicle excise duty” and they will say that they’re paying for carbon emissions.  Nobody will ever say that they’re paying for particulate pollution — the fines our cities pay, and the thousands of economically active people who are killed by it every year.  Nobody will say that they are paying for the thousands of people who die on the roads; for the operations, the years of physiotherapy, and the lifelong disability support for those who are maimed.  Nobody will say that they are paying up-front for the later-life care for the obesity-related diseases that their sedentary lifestyle will bring upon themselves.  Nobody will say that they are compensating us for the breakup of communities or the closure of the village shop, the deleterious shifts in developmental patterns that affect us all.  The issue is not whether the taxes that Motorists pay cover the cost of road repairs: it is whether any amount of money could ever come close to making up for the many and varied destructive forces of car dependency.

The final one recognises the futility of attempting to change the behaviour of dangerous and abusive Motorists.  Here at At War With The Motorist we make no attempt to engage with the hardened Motorist himself.  People rarely change: Motorists especially so.  It took thirty years for Motorists to work out what seatbelts were for.  It took thirty years for drink driving to become a faux pas.  We probably have at least another fifteen to go before mobile-phone use goes the same way.  It takes thirty years to change our culture and practices because it takes thirty years for one ruling generation to die out and for a new one to grow up in a world where seat belts and not drink driving are the norm.  The solution to abusive drivers is not to attempt to reason with them about the history of our tax system.  Give up on them.  Shout wittier abuse back and move on.  If you’re feeling optimistic about participatory democracy, engage with those who have the power to order proper enforcement of dangerous driving laws and a reform of planning.  Otherwise, focus your efforts in those generations who will be the ones to determine what is and is not socially acceptable over the next 30 years.

I don’t pay road tax: it’s irrelevant.

–Joe

When you start paying road tax…

The Grauniad reports that London is about to breach its annual allowance of “bad air days”.  The consequence of the city’s authorities’ impotence in preventing summer smogs is that they will be fined £300m.  Three hundred million pounds.

And four to five thousand people will die prematurely every year.

That’s twenty five times as many people as die in “collisions” on London’s roads; more even than get seriously injured.

The Guardian rightly chastise the authorities — primarily the mayor — for their hopeless incompetence in allowing such a massive preventable loss of life to occur, and for throwing away such a vast quantity of our money at a time when we’re all being told we must tighten our belts.  It was Boris’s absurd decision to reduce the congestion charge footprint, and his pointless delaying of the low emission zone introduction that are to blame, they say.  They come so close to identifying the problem.  And yet they don’t actually mention it: they don’t name the actual source of the problem.  Why do we have smogs?  The politicians are to blame for ignoring the problem, but who created the problem in the first place?

We have smogs in London because a dangerous minority of the population are invited to burn oil in our streets; because a selfish minority elect to use a singularly inappropriate method of transporting themselves across it.  We have smogs because the public has chosen to devote vast tracts of land and sophisticated expensive infrastructure to the proposition that driving into central London is acceptable behaviour.  We have smogs because London’s authorities have simply decided that what the city needs is twenty one thousand dirty diesel burning black cabs running around half empty all day, every day; needs them so much that they are to be given an even freer reign over our city than the already free reign given to private cars and trucks.

We have smogs because people don’t consider or care for the consequences of their actions.  And we have smogs because some people think that the consequences don’t matter because they’re paying for it.  “When you start paying road tax and insurance and get a number plate and MOT…”

Your and my council tax will be paying for London’s £300 million fine; a collective punishment for the selfish behaviour of the few.  Meanwhile, no amount of any tax will make it OK for five thousand Londoners to die slowly, painfully, miserably, rasping through ruined lungs.