The backlash has begun against net zero’s relentless war on driving

Net zero
Net zero

Emergency services rushed to the scene, but struggled to make their way through the protesters. Barricades were thrown up across the streets, and the mood was turning ugly quickly as torches set fire to the hastily assembled pyre, and the flames snarled high into the cold night air. It sounds like a scene from Paris, as strikers fought back against President Macron’s hated pension reforms. Or perhaps from Iran, or Algeria. Instead, it was Rochdale, on the outskirts of Manchester, last Thursday night. As a Low Traffic Neighbourhood was installed, restricting the movement of cars around the area, angry residents denied any meaningful say over a decision that would profoundly change their daily lives took matters into their own hands, setting fire to planters across the road as the only way left of expressing their anger, while other motorists started driving across the streets to get around the bollards blocking their way.

“Most of the community were aware of it being introduced but they weren’t aware how many [roads] would be closed at once,” said Mohammed Yousuf, a local businessman who shared a video of the protest on social media. “Why block everything all at once? It added at least half a mile for a lot of people’s journeys which must have angered some members of the community.”

An isolated incident? A local controversy that got a little out of control? Well, not quite. In Greenwich, in south-east London, last week anonymous campaigners in the middle of the night vandalised a series of the dreaded Ulez cameras that monitor high-pollution vehicles coming into London and levy a £12.50 a day charge on them. In the leafy and prosperous suburbs of Oxford last month protests were staged against low-traffic bollards, with some campaigners taking the law into their own hands. “If anyone gets arrested and charged for smashing up these barriers it’ll be f---ing hilarious,” argued one angry protester on Twitter. In the same city last year, barriers were destroyed and set alight by residents fed up that they could no longer move around. In Cambridge, last month thousands of marchers took to the streets to campaign against a planned £5-a-day congestion charge for driving into the city centre. “To have to rely on buses to do anything you want to do in Cambridge, to go grocery shopping, to go to a shopping centre, to go to a garden centre, it’s just not feasible,” according to one of the marchers, Sharon Williamson. Meanwhile, in Bristol last October disabled people staged a vigil outside the City Hall against the introduction of the city’s £9-a-day congestion charges. Across the country, protests against charges, levies, fines and speed restrictions that have made what used to be the simple matter of travelling a few miles in your own car unbearably complex are gathering momentum with every week that passes – and, as we have already seen in Rochdale, they are increasingly turning violent.

In countries such as France, Italy or Spain it is normal for people to take to the streets to vent their anger against an out-of-touch elite. Burning barricades and riot police in full body armour wielding truncheons and water cannons are part of the everyday scenery, and the demos and torches often don’t amount to very much. In Britain, however, this is something new, and, to make it worse, the protests and violence are not in the deprived areas of London, Birmingham or Liverpool but in quiet suburbs where people are usually getting on with their lives and respectful of the law. The explanation? The relentless war on the car is driving previously moderate, sensible people to more extreme and direct action.

In reality, over the past few months it has become increasingly clear that the net-zero driven war on the car has got out of control. Driven by a handful of extreme ideologues, aided by a civil service machine that panders to every crazy idea so long as it comes with “climate-friendly” attached to it, it ignores the fact that the four-wheeled private vehicle, for all its faults, is how most of us actually get around. Ordinary lives are being made impossible – and it’s got worse since the pandemic – while the assault on mobility is not doing the environment any good and, paradoxically, may even be making it worse. On top of that, it is breaking up communities and poisoning local politics with a rancour and bitterness that is usually absent from British community life. A backlash is stirring – and it is not likely to stop until the assault on the car is driven back.

At a People’s Question Time town hall meeting in Ealing, west London, last week, the mood was already becoming heated when London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, facing increasingly hostile scrutiny of his plans to extend the Ulez charge, let rip. “Let’s be frank, let’s call a spade a spade … some of those outside are part of the far-Right, some are Covid deniers, some are vaccine deniers and some are Tories,” he spat.

In reality, Khan’s mask had slipped. By lumping together people who simply want to drop the kids off at their sports fixtures, make it into work, or get to the supermarket in a vehicle under their own control, with the Far Right, with vaccine refuseniks, and – gasp! – with Tories, Khan seems intent on waging an ideologically driven war against the people he regards as beyond the political pale – a class enemy that has to be ruthlessly rooted out.

Over the past two decades, the UK, like most developed countries, has been steadily restricting the ability of people to get from place to place by car. It happened first largely by stealth, and in the quietest possible manner. The London congestion charge was introduced when Ken Livingstone was the mayor in 2003, two decades ago. It started at just £5 a day, with no charges at the weekend. In the years since then, the zone has expanded westwards, the charge has tripled to £15 a day, and levies have been introduced for Saturdays and Sundays as well. But that is just the start of it. Motorists who had already grown used to navigating a barrage of speed cameras and parking tickets now face an almost daily tally of charges, levies and fines that have made simple journeys both bewildering and eye-wateringly expensive. Over the past decade, and with the trend accelerating since the pandemic, both local and central governments have been engaged in a war against the private motor car that is unprecedented in the hundred years since Henry Ford first started making automobiles affordable for ordinary families. Congestion charges have spread and spread, taking in cities such as Bristol and Canterbury, and are now on the way even for fairly small cities such as Cambridge where most people already cycle anyway. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, or LTNs in the  jargon of the traffic management industry, have been springing up all across the country turning ordinary suburban streets into obstacle courses that would tax even the presenters of Top Gear. Ulez zones have been added on top of congestion zones in London, and will be on their way to whatever happens to be your closest city very soon.

Across most major cities, 20mph is now the standard speed limit, turning journeys into a painfully slow crawl through what are often almost deserted roads, especially late at night, and making it virtually impossible not to occasionally break the speed limit. Indeed, speed “tolerances” have steadily been reduced; a 1mph reduction by the Metropolitan Police in London last year led to a 259 per cent increase in the number of speeding fines issued, and will inevitably soon lead to a huge increase in the number of bans; and drivers tearing up the tarmac at a terrifying 24mph face losing their licence for six months or more. Meanwhile, the spread of “smart motorways” means that the roads that were originally built to take you quickly and conveniently from city to city, with as little stress as possible, have been turned, like suburban streets, into a treacherous minefield of rules and regulations, where the next offence is never more than a flashing orange sign away. And even if you do manage to get somewhere in your car, you will probably be fined for leaving it anywhere. The number of parking fines issued by private companies soared by 57 per cent last year, hitting an average of more than 30,000 a day. Oh, and if you need to get your car through its MOT, making it safe to drive on the road, that is going to cost a lot more as well: the average cost of servicing has risen by 40 per cent since 2018. Motorists are being squeezed and squeezed from every possible angle.

On top of all that, the Government is sticking rigidly to its plan to force us all to scrap perfectly serviceable petrol and diesel cars and replace them with battery-powered versions instead. The UK has a target of banning the sale of all new fossil fuel powered vehicles by 2030, even though that figure was plucked more or less arbitrarily out of thin air by Boris Johnson as he was trying to make a splash at a climate change conference. It ignores the fact that we are hopelessly behind schedule on building the charging infrastructure that will be needed to keep all electric vehicles moving, or that, even if we could get our act together to install the chargers, it would crash the grid. This week, even the European Union, hardly the best-run institution in the world, bowed to German pressure and agreed to postpone its ban on forcing the switch to EVs only. So far the UK has been unwilling to follow that lead, even though it has the potential to be just as disastrous in this country as it is in Germany and elsewhere. Increasingly alone, the UK may well be the only major economy to ban petrol vehicles completely – and the “car crash” and “carmageddon” headlines won’t be far behind.

The trouble with the war on the car is that it ignores the reality of how most of us get around. To listen to some of the leaders of the assault on the car, you might think cars were the sole preserve of a tiny plutocratic elite ferried about in chauffeur-driven Bentleys. That is not really true. According to the Office for National Statistics, of the 645 billion passenger kilometres travelled in the UK in 2021, 88 per cent were made by car, van or taxi. Cycling, for all the expenditure lavished on it (by 2019, the Government had spent £1.2 billion on cycling, mostly on lanes), still only accounts for 7 billion kilometres, or around 1 per cent of the total, while bus use has hardly grown over the past 20 years and train usage has been in decline. In reality, for all the extra costs, and the punishments routinely handed out to motorists, the number of private vehicles on the road in the UK has steadily risen. It was 27 million in 2000, but that was up to 32 million by last year. Of commutes to work, 68 per cent are made by car compared with only 9 per cent by train and 6 per cent by bus (although a lucky 11 per cent of us walk to work). And of business trips, 78 per cent are made by car, and less than 10 per cent by bus or train. In case anyone hadn’t noticed, the plumber or electrician very rarely arrives on a bike. Without cars, the economy would literally grind to a complete halt.

There is a reason for that. In the places where most of us actually live, it is very hard to get around by public transport. Indeed, the UK has got worse and worse at building new rail lines, or installing new trams or buses. For the vast majority of the population, it is a choice between getting in the car or staying at home. There are no other realistic alternatives.

And is the war on the car actually saving the environment? It’s debatable. In fact, there are two big problems. The first is that there is increasing evidence that electric cars – at least the way they are being made right now – may not be any better for the environment than the petrol models they are replacing: almost four tonnes of CO2 are released during the production process of a single electric car; in order to break even, the vehicle must be used for at least eight years to offset the initial emissions. Add in the pressure to scrap petrol and diesel vehicles with several years of useful life left in them and the environmental prognosis looks even worse. On top of that, as shown in a report from the Henry Jackson Society published last year, by moving so quickly to force us all to drive electric cars we are handing huge geopolitical and economic power to China. “China occupies a central position in the electric vehicle supply chain, one that will not be easily circumvented in the near future,” the report argued. “By capturing huge market shares at each stage – including the refinement of minerals, the manufacturing of battery and engine components, the assembly of cells and even the manufacturing of vehicles – Beijing has ensured that it will maintain its grip on the market.”

The second, and perhaps more serious, issue is this. Like so much of the net zero drive, by rushing the transition, and by imposing such huge additional costs on ordinary families, it risks creating a backlash against a cause which would otherwise have widespread support. We would probably have been happy with phasing out petrol cars by 2040 or 2045, and diesel even earlier – according to an ONS report from 2021, more than half of motorists aged 16 to 49 said they would be likely to switch to all-electric vehicles within the next decade. But trying to make it happen too quickly makes it far more expensive, for very little marginal benefit.

Sadiq Khan may well regard anyone who wants to get around in their own car as part of the far-Right, on a par with vaccine-deniers, or, worst of all, as Tories. Even so, it has been an aspiration for most families for more than a hundred years. People like their cars. They are convenient, practical, efficient, and for most of the post-Second World War era have been a potent symbol of freedom and adventure. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have any songs in his catalogue about shared bus lanes and neither does anyone else. No one denies that air quality is important, that climate change needs to be urgently addressed, or that in some big cities the traffic has become unmanageable, and needs to be reduced. And yet the war on the car is no longer achieving any of those outcomes. Instead, it has become a proxy class war, waged with increasingly ideological ferocity against a besieged middle class. It is stoking civil protests, violence and interest on an unprecedented scale. And until local government zealots – the net zero fanatics – call off their assault on the car that is only going to get worse and worse, and it is not even going to do anything to combat climate change.