The Imaginary War

Government ministers have declared an end to hostilities that never begun.

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 4th January 2011

Where is this famous war on the motorist? Can anyone point me to the battlefields, the graves of the war dead, the statues commemorating the unknown driver? Who has been waging it and when was it fought?

What I see is that driving has become cheaper over the past three decades, while other forms of transport have become more expensive. That the space dedicated to cars – both on the roads and for parking – has expanded, often at the expense of other kinds of public space. That there is precious little enforcement of either the speed limit or of other rules – such as parking on the pavement in residential areas. That when someone is killed or injured as a result of careless driving, the penalties are tiny, if there is any punishment at all. As a result, motorists are able to take space – and even life – away from people pursuing other activities.

The only places in which you can see what looks like the outcome of a war are hospital wards which treat people with terrible injuries inflicted by poorly regulated drivers. But in this case the “war” is being waged by motorists against pedestrians and cyclists.

The two men who have just announced that they will “end the war on the motorist” – Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, and Eric Pickles, the communities secretary – are living in a dream world. Or, perhaps more accurately, a media world, in which the fantasies of the rightwing tabloids are treated as if they were reality.

Yesterday they said that they are “removing national planning restrictions put in place in 2001 that required councils to limit the number of parking spaces allowed in new residential developments and set high parking charges to encourage the use of alternative modes of transport.”

There are two obvious and immediate outcomes. The first is that there will be less space for housing. Land is finite, and development land is in short supply. This means that there’s a pay-off between the amount on which you can build and the amount on which you can park. Pickles and Hammond seem to be putting the demand for second and third cars over the need for new housing. Either housing sprawls over an ever wider area of countryside (which, incidentally, makes people even more dependent on their cars) or less of it can be accommodated on existing sites.

The second is that there will be less money for local authorities, which means that services must be cut even further. Parking fees are an important part of many councils’ revenues – something has to go.

But the wider impacts are just as important. This is about private interests trumping the public interest, about allowing people to pursue their desires, regardless of the cost to society. It’s about championing the freedom to act, while ignoring the other kind of freedom: freedom from other people’s actions. If “the war on the motorist” means the puny and half-hearted measures designed to ensure that drivers couldn’t push everyone else out of the way, the government announcement that it has come to an end means that we will lose any hope of ensuring that transport is built around the needs of society. Instead, all other human life will have to make way for the car.