‘Opposite of what was needed’: Sunak criticised for fuel duty freeze on eve of Cop26 summit

·4-min read
The Institue for Fiscal Studies said it was the 12th year in a row that fuel duty has been frozen  (PA)
The Institue for Fiscal Studies said it was the 12th year in a row that fuel duty has been frozen (PA)

Campaigners have criticised the government for scrapping a planned fuel duty rise, saying the freeze on petrol and diesel taxes for the twelfthyear in a row amounted to a subsidy for drivers of polluting vehicles just days before the UK hosts a major climate summit.

Rishi Sunak announced in the Budget on Wednesday that the planned rise in fuel duty would be cancelled because of high pump prices.

The chancellor said he was “not prepared to add to the squeeze on families and small businesses”.

The move, which will cost the taxpayer nearly £8bn over the next five years, drew sharp criticism from clean air and active travel advocates, coming just days before the UK hosts the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Jemima Hartshorn, founder of clean air pressure group Mums for Lungs, told The Independent: “The chancellor clearly hasn’t made the connection between the climate emergency, public health, the pandemic and the need for combining all of these in a responsible Budget that addresses future challenges but also ensures the health of children now.”

The UK continues to suffer from illegal levels of pollution linked to emissions from the high numbers of cars, taxis and lorries on the roads.

Ms Hartshorn said motor vehicle owners “receive much more generous subsidies compared with sustainable means of travel, such as public transport. This needed to be addressed in the Budget so that investment and subsidies from the government ensure that everyone is encouraged to travel in a way that is not polluting and harming our children.”

Simon Munk, campaigns manager at the London Cycling Campaign, also criticised the government for the fuel duty U-turn and said the government should focus on discouraging unnecessary car journeys rather than making it cheaper to drive.

“We understand that many people are struggling with the cost of living, but with Cop26 looming, and the planetary climate crisis rightly in starker focus than ever before, this announcement is the polar opposite of what the government needs to do to help save our planet and our country from runaway climate change,” he said.

“We urgently need to swap the government’s £27bn roads building programme to building active travel and convenient, affordable public transport schemes, and move towards a system of charges that discourages avoidable trips by car, and helps people switch to good, sustainable alternatives.

“In London that means a long-term funding deal on active travel and public transport for TfL and the Mayor, and them having the ability to implement ‘smart road-user pricing’ inside the M25.”

Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the fuel duty freeze was a “big tax loss” for the Treasury and “hardly consistent with climate change objectives”.

However, warnings about the climate and health impacts of the policy were brushed aside by motorists.

At one forecourt in London, drivers told The Independent they welcomed any move to keep prices down.

Liz Durham, a dog walker from Clapham Junction, said petrol had become much more expensive since the pandemic.

“Filling up my tank cost £58 today,” she said at the Jet petrol station in Loughborough Junction, south London. “When I bought this car three years ago it would never have cost me this much. Prices have gone up a lot recently and the whole thing is such a mess.

“Cutting fuel duty will be beneficial to anyone who has to drive, like me. I have to drive for work, the dogs don’t collect themselves.”

Samantha Stewart, who lives in nearby Brixton, also backed the fuel duty freeze. “Driving has been very expensive since the whole petrol-gate thing,” she said, referencing the shortages of drivers last month which led many petrol stations to temporarily close after running out of fuel.

“I have noticed prices shooting up. If fuel duty had risen it would have affected us financially. £40 on petrol used to go a long way, but not anymore. Those that are less vulnerable should drive less, and more people should walk, but I have long Covid so it is more difficult for me.”

RAC fuel spokesman Simon Williams said: “We welcome the chancellor’s confirmation that duty will continue to remain frozen at 57.95p a litre until next year. With pump prices at record highs, now would have been the worst possible time to change tack and hike up costs still further at the forecourt.”

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