Why Boris and the elite are determined to wean us off the car

·14-min read
Motorists, especially those who travel into cities, feel they are being hit from every direction.
Motorists, especially those who travel into cities, feel they are being hit from every direction.

Like many drivers these days, Keith Perry felt under attack and faced with a painful choice. He could either keep the family’s trusted Volvo and pay punitive costs; or he could buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car – which would also come at a hefty price.

His dilemma was driven not just by the cost of fuel rising at rates not seen for 30 years, but also car tax, increasing insurance premiums, new city charging zones and pollution-busting road restrictions.

It all became too much and Perry sacrificed the Volvo. He now has a Fiat 500 in which to ferry around his family of growing teenagers. “I feel motorists are being driven off the road,” says Perry, 58, who lives in Sidcup, south London. “We car drivers are an endangered species.

“Exorbitant petrol costs, rising car insurance and road tax, the Ulez [Ultra Low Emission Zone] and congestion charge. I am sick of it. Owning a car is becoming a luxury item when it is essential if you have a growing family.”

He is worried about the safety of driving his children around crammed into such a small vehicle and angry at the constraints on his choice as a hard-working taxpayer who has to do shift work. He cannot rely on public transport to travel in from the suburbs, he says, and forcing him to change his car has “taken away a lot of our freedom.”

Keith Perry
Keith Perry

Perry’s plight is being replicated across Britain as motorists face a perfect storm of Whitehall-inspired schemes to drive down urban car usage and an international crisis sending petrol prices to record highs. And it’s going to get worse.

The Government will today unveil the next stage in its drive to promote cycling and walking as an alternative to the car. Despite the economic crisis, Whitehall bike enthusiasts have come up with £200 million for new cycle lanes, pedestrianisation and feasibility studies into creating “mini-Hollands” in 19 cities and towns.

Motorists, especially those who travel into cities, feel they are being hit from every direction. Dead ahead there are closed off roads in low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs); to the left there are automated cameras monitoring their every move; to the right low emission zones and 20mph limits. And all around are parking charges and fuel costs that put a hefty dent in your wallet.

“There has now developed in Government an anti-car attitude as opposed to car management, a hostility to the motor vehicle rather than how we can manage this,” says former transport minister John Spellar.

He puts this down to a London-centric approach to transport that focuses on the problems cars cause in congested cities and ignores different conditions in other areas. As Spellar points out, working Britons outside the capital – particularly manual and shift workers – often rely on their vehicles to get to work, unlike city commuters who can travel by train.

Department for Transport (DfT) figures show just 27 per cent of workers in London commute by car, against an average of 76 per cent for every other region in England. For many in rural towns and villages hit by reduced bus services and high rail costs, cars are the only viable means of transport.

“We have policies set in Whitehall by people living in London suburbs and commuting in by rail,” he adds. “It is very different outside the capital and as a result we are taxing people for going to work – particularly manual workers and people who provide all our services, whether in the NHS or shops.”

Low traffic neighbourhoods have been implemented across London boroughs with Government grants - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph
Low traffic neighbourhoods have been implemented across London boroughs with Government grants - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

Critics say there is no mandate for some of the Government’s initiatives to coerce people out of their cars. The 2019 Conservative manifesto carried a picture of Boris Johnson on a bike with two London buses in the background, perhaps foreshadowing the new assault on motorists. But there was just one paragraph – on plans to “support commuter cycling routes” – that presaged what has become a new battleground.

The question is how did we come to this apparent hostility to the car, formalised in the new highway code that puts pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders at the top of a new hierarchy of “road users”? Is it simply a consequence of circumstance or is there a guiding hand?

The story of how Britain went to war on the car is not a simple one, but can be traced back to the 1973 energy crisis.

The oil shocks of the 1970s prompted politicians to pay a lot more attention to motoring. First they hiked taxes, with Labour’s Denis Healey imposing 25 per cent VAT on petrol and diesel sales in 1974.

Speed limits were also cut. In the US, the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act introduced a maximum 55mph limit on national highways, while in the UK, Peter Walker, then trade and industry secretary, instituted similar moves, spawning the current speed limits of 70mph on motorways and 60mph on dual carriageways.

At about the same time there was a sharp shift in spending from road to rail to encourage people onto public transport, as ministers started to reverse the Beeching cuts of the 1950s and 60s.

Politicians saw they had power over the motorist and have not stopped pulling the levers since. The first motorway speed camera was installed in 1991, coinciding with a stark “speed kills, kill your speed” advertising campaign by John Major’s government.

Tony Blair presided over the wider proliferation of speed cameras to their current 7,000 – the fourth highest total in the world. Such devices accounted for a substantial slice of the 2.5 million speeding offences recorded in 2021. They were coupled with a new road safety strategy aimed at almost halving fatalities.

Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Fair Fuel UK Motorists, pinpointed the first congestion charge in London, in 2003, as the moment politicians consolidated their power over motorists.

“Motorists have become another cash cow for local government, regional government, mayoralties and central government generally,” he says. “We’ve now created, in every single council, parking as a new source of revenue, aggravation and fines.

“We’ve just got to get out of people’s hair, stop the pettifogging, stop the annoyance. Driving should be a pleasurable experience, and not something that you’re in a state of worry about at every turn.”

Certainly, 2022 has echoes of 1973, with an oil crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it is not just about fuel costs and shortages – there are pressures over the commitment to limit climate change and pollution, as car usage has continued to rise over the past decade by a quarter.

Some has been fuelled by changing transport habits, such as the increasing numbers of vans for internet shopping deliveries and growing use of private hires like Uber. These factors have helped to make the new curbs on the motorist less circumstance and more deliberate policy.

“We want to reduce car use but it is the only way to keep the roads moving,” says a Tory source. “It’s not quite anti-motorist because it’s to clear the roads of short journeys that could be done by other means. Forty per cent of journeys are under two miles. A lot of them could be done by walking and cycling.”

Enter Andrew Gilligan, the Prime Minister’s transport adviser and an avid cyclist, who was Johnson’s cycling commissioner when he was London mayor before rejoining him in Number 10 after the 2019 election.

Gilligan and the Prime Minister, himself a passionate cyclist, are said to be the “driving forces” behind the £2 billion “Active Travel” programme to promote cycling and walking – with Johnson “setting out the principles” and Gilligan helping “implement” it across Whitehall.

Measures range from LTNs shutting off neighbourhood roads to through traffic and cycle lanes marked out by white bollards, to “school streets” restricting traffic at pick up and drop off times, “widely adopted” 20mph speed limits and temporary pedestrian zones.

Transport adviser Andrew Gilligan - AFP
Transport adviser Andrew Gilligan - AFP

It is LTNs that have become the biggest flashpoint. They are not a new concept: the first in London was introduced in Walthamstow seven years ago by Johnson alongside cycle superhighways. By his own admission, it sparked “intense controversy” as hundreds of protesters carried a golden coffin to symbolise the “death” feared for local shops.

Since then, it is claimed that local opposition has “evaporated,” which is one of the reasons the Prime Minister has moved to stop local authorities scrapping schemes without clear evidence they are not working. That message was rammed home to Transport for London (TfL) in a series of WhatsApp and email messages by Gilligan as local boroughs – including then Tory-controlled Wandsworth – were scaling back LTNs and pop-up cycle lanes.

“The danger point, and the potential tipping point is now, as more councils remove or consider removing schemes. The time to make a stance with backsliding councils is now,” Gilligan told Will Norman, the mayor’s walking and cycling commissioner.

He wanted it made clear to councils that they could not expect funding for their removal. “Could it be spelt out please? Along the lines of: ‘We will not, now or in future, fund any council to reduce facilities for active travel, or to remove or weaken schemes.

“‘In line with the new national guidance, schemes must not be removed or weakened prematurely, or without proper consultation, or without clear evidence that they are not working. Councils which do so will receive reduced funding’,” he wrote.

Gilligan’s emails came after ministers had used the pandemic to order a massive expansion of schemes to reduce reliance on public transport and take advantage of more people cycling and walking. New statutory guidance issued to councils in May 2020 ordered them “to reallocate road space for significantly increased numbers of cyclists and pedestrians.”

It was backed by £250 million of Government funds announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and set out a vision for some streets to become “bike and bus-only,” the closure of side streets to create LTNs and wider pavements.

Boris Johnson is a keen cyclist - Shutterstock
Boris Johnson is a keen cyclist - Shutterstock

The initiative has, however, opened up a fissure between national and local Tories. “Nationally the party supports it but locally a lot of Tories don’t like them. We are not saying LTNs are vote winners but the local elections prove they are not vote losers,” says a Tory source.

It is indeed a mixed picture. While Tories in the north London boroughs of Enfield and Harrow claim to have made gains by opposing LTNs, in south London the Dulwich Conservatives have seen their support fall six per cent despite campaigning against the traffic measures.

Pensioner Linda Bird feels local interests have been ignored or even damaged by anti-car measures in her area. Like many older people, she relies on her car but now has to navigate lengthy tailbacks displaced from a closed road in Dulwich village to outside her house. This has been compounded by a narrowing of the highway to accommodate cyclists under a scheme policed by CCTV cameras.

“Businesses are upset because they’ve put double yellow lines throughout the village, bus drivers are upset because their schedules are up in the air, I’ve talked to pretty much every house affected in this area and people are in tears,” she says.

“Everybody’s been affected, it’s been absolutely terrible – first they put it in without any consultation and it’s been poorly signed. I’ve lived here 45 years and it used to be a very peaceful area. Now it’s left the village absolutely divided, that’s the worst thing, and the lack of democracy.”

In East Dulwich, Melbourne Grove used to be a thriving hub of local traders. Now every other shop is shuttered; it’s a ghost town. Southwark Council fenced it off to motorists in November 2020 to create the current LTN, which is now open only to pedestrians and cyclists and features large wooden benches and flowerpots .

It was all too much for Scott Callow, 53, who felt the dramatic reduction in footfall left him with no choice but to close down his business, Callow Master Locksmiths, and take out a £50,000 loan to move it 100 metres across to an adjacent street, which is still bustling with vehicles and activity.

“I’ve lived here all my life so I’ve seen a lot of change. To close a road with commercial properties on there; I think it’s absolutely killing businesses – the shops have all closed down,” he says.

The impact is personal too for Blake Lorck, 52, who is now forking out £900 per week on taxis to sit at a standstill thanks to LTNs in Dulwich, where he lives, and Islington, where his severely disabled son goes to school. The price, he says, has shot up £20 per day due to the huge traffic levels and his son’s personal allowance is struggling to cover it.

The financial impact for him does not stop there. “Another carer usually gets the number 3 bus to Brixton but it’s running so slowly that she had enough of it and retired. So that’s costing an extra £10,000 per year to get an agency nurse,” he adds.

“Then there’s the health implication – because of the pollution on my road, it’s affecting my son’s life expectancy, so I’ve purchased a £1,000 air purifier to stop my son paying the price for other people’s wellbeing.”

What next?

So where is the policy headed, given the public’s love of the car? The number of licensed cars on the roads has increased virtually every year over the past two decades, from 27 million in 2000 to 35 million in 2020. “On current trends, the roads will seize up,” says one Government source.

Ministers lay out four options. One would be to build more roads. The manifesto set out plans for £28.8 billion investment in strategic and local roads. But it is not “practically possible” in cities without knocking down homes.

Second would be to build more railways, which Shapps has set out as part of his Great British Railways transformation of the network.

Third would be congestion charging – currently limited to London – or road pricing, which are “not on the table at the moment,” says a source. “The only other way is to make better use of the roads we already have by encouraging vehicles like bikes and buses. That’s the only way to keep the roads moving.”

The Prime Minister summed up the thinking in a policy document last year: “I support councils, of all parties, which are trying to promote cycling and bus use. And if you are going to oppose these schemes, you must tell us what your alternative is, because trying to squeeze more cars and delivery vans on the same roads and hoping for the best is not going to work.

“And as the benefits of schemes increase over time, what opposition there is falls further. That is why schemes must be in place long enough for their benefits and disbenefits to be properly evidenced.”

Officials cite opinion polls showing on average two in three residents backing measures like LTNs, with only a vocal minority of between seven and 15 per cent being “strongly” opposed. “We are not going to do LTNs in areas where there is no public transport and driving is necessary. It is going to be mainly inner cities with low car ownership and high traffic congestion,” says a source.

They dispute the argument that there is displacement of traffic occurring rather than a reduction, pointing to research that found out of 50 councils, 35 had real declines in traffic and just 15 saw it rise.

Yet Tories who support the Prime Minister are not convinced and warned of a backlash not just from the party’s traditional voters but perhaps even a repeat of the fuel protests faced by Tony Blair.

Mackinlay has warned the more the Government taxes and “guilt trips” motorists, “the less conservative we start to appear – because it goes completely against our fundamental values.”

As former Tory minister puts it: “The Government really has got to end its obsession with just walking and cycling. You cannot do the school run on a bicycle. We cannot forget the motorist even if we need and must have greener cars. The car is a central part of people’s lives and that is not going to change. It creates a sense that the Government is anti-motorist and it is definitely upsetting the grassroots.”

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