Drivers Are Undertaxed

The British motorist has never had it so good

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 3rd August 2000

We should always be wary of social justice campaigns championed by the rich and powerful. The Countryside Alliance, for example, is backed by the National Farmers’ Union (headquarters Smith Square), the Country Landowners’ Association (headquarters Berkeley Square) and the Duke of Westminster, yet it claims to be defending the rural poor against urban domination. With the exception of the threatened ban on fox hunting, the problems it laments are the work of its most prominent supporters. The Dump the Pump campaign, led by those doughty crusaders for redistribution and human rights, the Daily Mail and The Sun, is scarcely better at pointing the finger of blame.

“Petrol duty”, the Mail claims, “hits the poorest hardest. They suffer a double whammy through higher prices at the pumps and having to pay more for their food – which goes up in price as transport costs rise”. The Sun suggests that driving is a human right. British motorists, nearly all the papers agree, pay more than any others, while petrol tax disproportionately punishes small businesses. Drivers, they suggest, are an oppressed majority, hounded by the greens and a distant and despotic government. In truth, the British motorist has never had it so good.

While average disposable income over the past 25 years has massively increased, the cost of driving in real terms has remained unchanged. Bus fares, by contrast, have risen by 87 per cent and train fares by 53 per cent. Our train journeys are now the most expensive on earth, costing some three times more per mile than the Spanish or Italians pay. British drivers are charged more for their fuel than motorists elsewhere, but they don’t pay road tolls. The truth is that Britain’s vehicles are massively subsidised by those of us who don’t own one.

The Exchequer currently takes £32 billion a year from motorists. A study commissioned by the British Lung Foundation suggests that the damage caused by driving to our health, our environment and our infrastructure costs an annual £45 billion. Even this figure fails to represents all of the car’s externalised costs. In my neighbourhood, for example, a room about 3 times the size of a parking space costs £3500 a year to rent. Given that bricks and mortar account for less than 50% of the cost of the houses, and that no parking charges are levied, each car receives a free plot of public land worth some £500 a year. As streets become hostile to human life and even the pavements become impassable, as tens of thousands of acres on which houses could have been built are reserved instead for parking, the driver’s access to land is underwritten by everyone in Britain.

These costs fall disproportionately on the poor. While 59 per cent of households in social class five have no access to a car, their children are five times as likely to be hit by one as those in social class one. Road deaths are now lower than ever before, but only because the streets have been seized from the poor and handed to more prosperous people. While the children of richer people have gardens or quiet cul-de-sacs in which to play, the children of the poor must either run among the traffic or sit at home and watch the telly.

The rich move away from busy roads, leaving their pollution with those who can’t escape. A study this year by researchers at the University of Colorado suggests that children living beside the most hectic highways are six times more likely to contract leukaemia and other childhood cancers than children in quiet places. Diesel engines emit the two most carcinogenic compounds ever detected. Traffic pollution may also be responsible for the catastrophic recent growth of Britain’s commonest form of blindness. The poor subsidise the rich with their lives.

The worst offenders are the very vehicles whose taxation, the Daily Mail insists, does most to penalise the poor: big lorries delivering food to the superstores. Far from hitting the small retailers hardest, higher fuel taxes could make them more competitive: separate studies show that they are more likely than the big chains to buy their supplies locally and that their customers are more likely to arrive on foot. Even the Dump the Pump campaign itself could prove to be regressive. Future boycotts of filling stations, the organisers have decided, should take place on Mondays. Drivers, in other words, will fill up their cars on Sundays, when the smaller, independent petrol sellers are less likely to be open.

Yet the government will, in all probability, respond to this nonsense, for it began to panic even before the tabloids launched their campaigns. When the Conservatives savaged the Labour Party for the very policies they introduced (above-inflation increases in fuel tax and proposed congestion charging), the government led its vast parliamentary army in its customary retreat from the enfeebled opposition, dropping the “fuel duty escalator”, cutting tax on the biggest lorries, abandoning its pledges to reduce traffic growth and promising to build more roads.

The government appears to be suffering from two familiar problems. As its policies on both law and order and asylum seekers have shown, it is deeply reluctant to confront reactionary populism with the facts. If the opposition maintains that Middle England is being persecuted, the government, determined to seize from the Tories a handful of target votes in marginal wards, scrambles to agree.

It also seems to be the victim of poor advice. In response to my column last week, Professor David Begg, chairman of the government’s Commission for Integrated Transport, asserted “we have come across no country in the developed world that has reduced traffic volumes at a time of rising economic prosperity.” If we reduced traffic, he suggested, the economy would suffer. This is formidable nonsense. Singapore cut traffic by 40 per cent, while its economy boomed. A study by the transport consultant Professor John Whitelegg shows that better development control, green commuter plans and the promotion of public transport, cycling and walking could cut traffic volumes by ten per cent without damaging the economy.

British drivers are not overtaxed, but undertaxed. High fuel taxes are an essential component of a socially just economy. Reduce them, and the poor will choke so that the rich can breathe.