Tag Archives: tabloids

“Britain pays more for fuel than anywhere else”

It’s another frequently raised fact in comment threads and pub agreements.  Everybody knows it’s true.  If it wasn’t true, why would everybody know it and repeat it all the time?  They can’t all be wrong.

You would think though that such a fact, with all of the resources of the tabloid media and interested industry lobbies behind it, would have some readily available evidence to support it.  You would think that all these petrolhead websites would be falling over themselves to present the data showing off our great national achievement scandal.

Here’s the data:

Retail petrol prices in the past few weeks in Euros: EU countries from AA Ireland, US from DoE converted to Euros/litre with Google converter.

There are six EU countries with more expensive petrol right now; two others that match us.  The rest clustering around.  In Norway petrol is 20p per litre more expensive than here.  In Spain it’s 20p per litre cheaper.

Obviously relative fuel prices between countries fluctuate according to international and national events, our various national tax schedules, and, where applicable, currency fluctuations.  The order of countries on the list changes all the time.  I’d quite like to assemble a timelapse of the graph for the past 20 years, to see whether there were any interesting trends — perhaps it was true for a while that the UK was paying a noticeable amount more?  But there are a lot of other things I’d quite like to do more, so I’m not going to.

The best source I can find for the claim is a uSwitch “survey” from 2008: PDF. As you can see, uSwitch take researching their “surveys” even more seriously than I take researching blog posts.  They put some keywords into Google, found various sources of data, and put them together in Excel.  I recommend going to page 5 to follow their quite fabulous method for calculating the annual national spend on petrol.  Apparently we don’t have the real data, so they had to make it up.  Only they forgot the Peter Snow “just a bit of fun” disclaimers when they prepared the press release and accidentally got their made up facts printed in every newspaper.

The “survey” did show that Britain was paying more per litre than other European countries in 2008 (when the pound was noticeably stronger against the Euro).  In many cases it was only by a hair’s breadth, and thus it was not a particularly interesting fact, but it was true nonetheless, according to the data given.   So a press release was prepared and the newspapers mangled some impressive sounding numbers out of the data, which have become part of the collective wisdom of the British people.  Interestingly, even though the “survey” itself pointed out that we do not pay the highest rate of tax, this didn’t prevent the Daily Mail declaring that it is so in their headline.

But enough of that.  The basic conclusion is that, currently, the claim is not true.  And when it was true, it probably wasn’t interestingly true.  And the other conclusion is that, for such a common claim, there doesn’t seem to be any good quality well presented and well publicised data on this.  I’d love to see such things as:

  • Price-per-litre trends over time for these countries, with and without taking into account inflation and currency fluctuations.
  • Amount and proportion of the price-per-litre that is tax, with trends over time.
  • Total national spend (not made up numbers), with population, number of cars, etc, for comparison.  (Because paying more for petrol is not the same as spending more on petrol, and the latter probably says far more interesting things.)

And probably more.  But I looked in the obvious places and found nothing, and I will obviously not be compiling the datasets myself from each individual data point.  Surely there must be databases for this sort of thing?  I’m a science guy.  This sort of basic data is what scientists have free and publicly accessible databases with powerful querying tools for.  I’m used to having silly ideas and being able to instantly try them against the vast databases of already collected data.  I want a database for this sort of thing.  Is there one?  If it exists, it’s well hidden. I know all of the data exists, it’s just not accessible and easy to use…

Advertisements

“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.

Get help.

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying:

If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.

VAT and fuel duty have just risen, while petrol prices continue to rise as it becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous to source at the same time that global demand rises.  The press seem to think that it’s time to make another fuss about the pains that come with the death of the oil age — to pretend that they could somehow be avoided.  What must be done to relieve our pain?  Fuel prices should be lower: customers want it, hauliers need it, The Daily Express Says So.  Labour think that the government could be “doing more”.  If only the government were to be fair and reasonable with the poor motorist, everything would be alright and the motorist would live happily ever after.

Henry Ford’s advice is not to ignore these cries and let things carry on as they are.  Nor he is telling us to arbitrarily impose things on people against their will.  But he is advising us to be cleverer than to simply provide the stupid and short-sighted solution that the consumer thinks he wants.  His maxim is accepted basic business practice: you don’t ask the client or customer exactly what they want, you ask what the customer is trying to achieve — what they need to do, what problem they are trying to solve, what ultimate outcome they are hoping for.  The obvious solution to a problem is often not the best.  Sometimes it’s not even a solution at all.

So what are the people crying over their fuel bill ultimately trying to do?  What people actually need to do is get to their place of employment.  They need to be able to get their food, and pick up their pension or get their kids educated.  They’d like to be able to see their friends, have days and nights out, and buy the occasional unnecessary luxury.  And they’d like their businesses to be able to source materials and ship products.  They would like to be able to afford to do all of these things.  Increasingly people are unable to do these things because so many have been lured into an expensive and destructive car habit, often entirely against their own will.  A tax cut, if it helps at all, is never going to help for long.  Fiddling with the cost of fuel is not the clever solution for getting people to work and to school; it at best puts off the crisis.

Unfortunately, like smokers and gamblers, car addicts get very defensive about their habit.  One very common theme is to cite their circumstances: there simply is no alternative for them but to drive.  It’s too far to walk, the railway was ripped up decades ago (just before the village shop and school closed), the buses go to the wrong place at the wrong time of day, and the roads are too dangerous to cycle on.  The excuses are all true, and mostly they’re used legitimately. The problem is that, like all addicts with their feelings of powerlessness, car addicts use these as excuses to do nothing except fantasise about a scenario in which their addiction is not a problem — a perfect world with lower fuel prices and a magical future in which the car can survive all of the problems that it has created for itself.  The car addict is never going to benefit from a financial break that further encourages their habit.  Fuel is not going to become more abundant or easier to source or less in demand.  Anybody who can’t kick the habit is ultimately going to get destroyed by it.

If you have no bus to a town with shops, if your schools are closing, if there is no safe route to cycle, if you are forced into expensive car dependency, why aren’t you outraged about that?  Those are outrageous things.

If it’s true that fuel prices are becoming a major problem for a significant portion of our population then it is an outrage that the government isn’t doing more to correct the failings that have forced so many powerless people into this expensive dependency.  If it’s true that fuel prices are such a problem for you then it sounds like it’s time for you to stand up, admit that you have a problem, and scream at the government not for another short-lived high, but for the help that you need to kick the habit.  If it’s true that this is such a big and urgent problem for so many people, then it’s time for Philip Hammond to put down the high-speed train set, stop pretending that this is a little unimportant job that our broke borough councils or the Big Society can handle, and come up with the big and urgent solution it needs.  It’s time to seek help, and it’s time for the government to provide it.

If it’s true.

Punch and Judy town planning policy

“Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists.”

The Department for Communities and Local Government put these words in a press release and today 221 national and local newspaper journalists* copypasted them into their newspapers, noticing nothing nonsensical in their conjunction.  Great job, The Media.

The press release was announcing the abolition of two ten year old Labour policies: Planning Policy Guidance 13: Transport (PPG13), and Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing (PPS3).  The department spin this as the abolition of an “encouragement” to local councils to charge for town-centre car parking, and of a rule that limited car parking in new developments in the hope that fewer residents would own cars as a result.

Given that the war “on” motorists is a war between motorists as ever more of them compete for increasingly scarce land and resources, these policies will of course merely serve to make people’s lives even more miserable as they sit in a whole new level of congestion.  Not that I expect there to be any noticeable difference to most people’s lives as a result of this policy — it’s a drop in the ocean given the mess that we’re in.  And anyway, the policy merely devolves these decisions to local councils, who are unlikely to make any changes given their own dire situations.

Philip Hammond said, “this Government recognises that cars are a lifeline for many people.”  Which is interesting, because a lifeline is “a line to which a drowning or falling victim may cling to.”  The person on the end of a lifeline did not intend to be there, and he does not intend to stay there.  To get there, something has gone wrong, and the lifeline user intends to leave the lifeline behind as soon his feet are safely back on solid ground.  Lots of people will tell you that they have no choice but to drive a car, but most of them would rather they didn’t have to.  The car is a lifeline that have grasped after the doctor’s surgery closed, and then the butcher and baker closed, and then the library closed, and then the post-office closed — all because of the rise of car-dependent development around them.  These people don’t want to have to drive twenty miles to town.  They want their services back.  Philip Hammond’s policy is to encourage new developments that force people to use a car against their will; he’s pushing you overboard and expecting you to be grateful as you’re dragged along on a “lifeline”.

On the announcement, “Decentralisation Minister” Greg Clark said something that is actually mostly true:

“Limiting the number of drives and garages in new homes doesn’t make cars disappear – it just clogs residential roads with parked cars and makes drivers cruise the streets hunting for a precious parking space.”

But this is no excuse for giving up.  It is a fact that there is far more wrong with recent development patterns than just car parking; car parking alone does not create car dependent communities.  But we have to tackle all of the problems — we need more action, not less — and car parking was a start, at least.

And of course, Hammond again plugs his hoverboard development programme.  I know I should have no reason to be surprised by the depths to which British politicians and newspapers can sink, but the scale of the current farce is just amazing.  It looks like Hammond’s entire tenure as transport minister will be based on the recurring pantomime of riding his magic car to rescue the beautiful Motorist from the nasty Labour men and their War.  Apparently this is the “new kind of politics“.

* or, rather, 221 websites indexed by Google News, which is an overlapping, but not identical set.  And some of nationals at least didn’t swallow the line whole.

Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists