By Mark Wallace
“This war on motorists has just got to stop,” writes Robert Halfon in today’s Sun. It’s a familiar topic for the man who vied with Jesse Norman for the title of “most expensive backbencher” with his campaign against excessive fuel duty.
Back then, he was the scourge of George Osborne. Now – having been dropped from government by Theresa May – his target is Michael Gove, whose new pollution reduction strategy targets motorists, and particular those who drive diesel cars.
Halfon channels the feelings held by many drivers: that they already pay a lot of tax, that additional taxes supposedly intended to change behaviour often end up as never-ending revenue raisers, and that it is unfair of the state to mislead people into buying diesels then punish them for having done so.
His sally on the issue highlights the difficulties the Government faces in getting a pollution strategy together. On the one hand, it is criticised by green campaigners (often hypocritically) as insufficient, and yet the more it does, the more people it will annoy because the costs inevitably fall on some combination of drivers, consumers and taxpayers.
Gove’s decision to localise powers – and thereby responsibilities – for cutting pollution on the roads is a clever one. Given that there is a range of policy options available, and that circumstances like the provision or lack of public transport vary from place to place, it makes sense to allow for experimentation and competition in different areas. But it also puts the ball squarely back in the court of those in local government who are otherwise happy to pontificate that not enough is being done.
It’s telling to see some council leaders complain that Gove has landed them with the job of making unpopular decisions. He has, but these are decisions that they insisted must be taken. They can’t urge others to court unpopularity, then throw a fit when given the power to do so themselves.
That doesn’t change the Halfon argument that new taxes on diesel drivers would be unjust, given that diesel was heavily and mistakenly promoted by past governments. He’s right – a fair solution would involve a scrappage scheme, which would effectively compensate those who stand to lose out because of erroneous official advice. Ministers have promised to consider such a scheme, but the Treasury is predictably wary of the cost – it would constitute a sizeable bill for taxpayers, who are also not to blame for the errors that were made.
In short, there are bills all over the place and no easy answer as to who should pay them.
Nor is that the end of it. Gove’s other major initiative is to ban new diesel and petrol cars from sale from the year 2040 – as France recently did. In effect, the Government appears to be picking a technological winner – namely, electric cars. But we still cannot know how future technology will develop. The advent of autonomous cars ought to drastically improve fuel efficiency, and thus reduce pollution from the existing type of engine, for example. And electric cars are not magical energy sources. They still need to get their electricity from somewhere, and it remains to be seen quite how the energy grid would have to grow and change in order to bear the weight of charging tens of millions of vehicles each night, and to do so cleanly.
What both issues have in common is the question of accountability. The row between town halls and Whitehall shows that everyone involved knows that such measures are inevitably both painful and unpopular, and therefore that while all agree that “something must be done”, everyone would prefer that someone else is the one to do it. The decision to make policy for 2040 illustrates the alternative approach – to make decisions now, secure in the knowledge that those who are making them won’t be the ministers cat the dispatch box when their effects are felt.