TAPAS.network | 1 August 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Politics in the driving seat

Phil Goodwin

TO SOME PEOPLE, politics should be about expressions of leadership and commitment that construct an appeal amongst the electorate to get behind a vision. For others, it is “the art of the possible”, and to get elected, politicians must first listen closely to the concerns and priorities of the voters, and bring them promises of action that resonate.

The next 12-18 months will test the primacy of one or other of these two approaches in the run up to the next General Election.

As we report in this issue, in the wake of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip byelection, a highly-charged discussion about the necessity and appropriateness of measures to improve the environmental credentials of transport and traffic has begun – already embracing the London Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion and the implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes.

It seems to be pure politics that has prompted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to order a review of low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in England, positioning himself as ‘the motorists’ friend’ in so doing. He told the Sunday Telegraph he was supporting people to “use their cars to do all the things that matter to them”, in a seeming reminder of the ‘great car economy’ epithet once attributed to his predecessor Margaret Thatcher.

Labour leader, Sir Kier Starmer, has acknowledged the impact of ULEZ on the byelection result and urged London Mayor, Sadiq Khan to reflect on his decision to press on with the plan, a legal challenge to which by five local authorities in the High Court was last week rejected.

It all marks a sharpening debate on green policies as we approach the forthcoming General Election – with transport a key area of significance, particularly for its very close relationship with the matter of climate change and the pathway to net zero.

A key perspective to be born in mind in our modern world of hyper information and opinion exchange is that those in power, or seeking to achieve it, have a lot more to do these days to explain just how far they have thought through the consequences of their propositions.

In a highly politicised environment, it is easy for a project or initiative to get detached from its founding validity, both in the minds of its advocates and in those of a wider audience. And that can cause real problems in implementation.

The ULEZ and LTNs and restrictions on local car use, have become almost articles of faith for their proponents (including many transport professionals), and the reverse for their critics. This means they easily become swept up in the trenches of culture warfare. Open discussion about them, and willingness to review details may seem like a waste of energy at a time of urgent need to tackle transport’s unwelcome externalities. But such dismissal of debate itself sends a message in its own right about the over-confidence and insensitivity of the advocates when confronted with “ordinary people’s” concerns about the impacts on their daily lives.

Professionals may, quite logically, want to get on with the job. But they forget the politics at their peril. There is speculation, for example, that the failure of the DfT to release the long-delayed guidance to local authorities on preparing their next Local Transport Plans may reflect political concern at the Government being seen to endorse “anti-car” policies. Now publication of the guidance may be set back even further whilst the LTN review takes place.

Core issues are likely to include the way in which schemes have been designed and the affected public brought on board to ensure their acceptability, and the actual outcomes being sought and whether the measures will genuinely achieve them. This might also include whether the impacts of LTNs have been fully assessed for their secondary implications, and in particular, the equity and fairness of them. Not to mention the suspicion – rightly or wrongly – that they are mechanisms being used as part of a wider, not fully acknowledged agenda for controls on the way people can lead their lives, and thus a fertile topic for proponents of the conspiracy theory thinking that has become increasingly prevalent in our online society.

It all means that those who are convinced of a truth need to carefully reflect on what their attitude should be to those who are either not convinced or not engaged in the conversation. Just shouting louder is unlikely to help. Skills of persuasion are more useful.

The emerging Conservative position seems to be casting “going green” as something of an indulgent luxury, with an appeal to the squeezed suburban middle classes hit by the cost of living crisis, and also maybe to the hard up working classes who fear the personal downside too.

Sensibly, it has to be also acknowledged that the connection between LTNs and the whole climate change agenda may not be too apparent to everyone in the same way as it is to climate activists. And pointing to the hottest July on record has not anyway seemed to trigger the commensurate behaviour change it might in matters such as the desire for foreign holidays and flight bookings. These are an area of activity in which middle class relatively affluent consumers are predominant, and a reduction in which arguably might achieve a greater fall in carbon emissions than modest switches in local car journeys.

Some clearer evidence on such issues, and the equity consequences of decarbonisation, would perhaps be a useful addition to the pre-election debate.

In this issue, our regular LTT columnist John Siraut takes a detailed look at the latest travel behaviour data in the wake of the pandemic. Overall, he comments that while it suggests that total travel has declined, we have become even more dependent on the car. Alongside this, people seem generally unwilling to significantly change their travel behaviours to address climate change, though there seems some disposition to do more walking and cycling.

We may not need any more evidence about the realities of climate change and global warming, but there does seem to be a rather large gap in evidence about the most significant behavioural responses that should be undertaken by individuals in their daily lives, and of the social equity of such actions across different groups of people for their impacts and affordability. It has been pointed out, by Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, that imposing a flat charge on all vehicles which do not meet the ULEZ threshold is not a progressive taxation measure, and perhaps more thought should have been given to a more creative and pragmatic equivalent?

There is an interesting parallel examination of a different policy area in transport to the environmental one also explored in this issue. That is the topic of the prospective introduction of self-driving vehicles, and the general public’s attitudes towards them, and where they are genuinely going to be beneficial, rather than just another boost to a limited number of people able to adopt the technology to personal advantage. The answers are very interesting, and perhaps not quite what might be expected. Here, once again, there may well be a suspicion that the agenda has already been decided, this time based on the industrial and commercial case, rather than the public interest one.

Technological upgrades can disproportionately hit the less well-off, just as they can disproportionately benefit the better-off.

Can we really say that the pathway to automated vehicles, just as with net zero, has been carefully examined for its suitability on equity, fairness and justice?

Governments and agencies do have a tendency to blaze away with their mission, without relating their proposition to a changing public mood. National Highways and its ambitious roads programme looks like a case in point. It may seem, to those in charge, like the right thing to do, but not everyone may see it that way. Indeed, in this case the individual personal implications of reduced road building amongst the electorate may be less of a divisive issue – and the wider argument of reallocating spending from new schemes to fixing potholes easier to make.

In the current highly-charged political atmosphere, the temptation is to take sides and identify with those who hold the “right” positions. A more helpful and nuanced approach might be to look for something, that a majority are willing to sign up to as being of common benefit – though society is seemingly less and less equipped to take that path.

What does it take to make progress on consensus politics? In his thoughtful and timely article in this issue, our columnist Phil Goodwin reflects on the fact that 30 years ago, there was a rather remarkable period of such agreement between a departing Government and an incumbent one of a different complexion, on a considered new approach to sustainable transport policy.

Transport was not seen as a divisive issue in the 1997 election. But it looks very much like being one in 2024.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT874, 1 August 2023.

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