Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Reply to the Prime Minister

Well no-one's going to read it in the PM's office, so why not any lingerers on Blogger!

Dear Prime Minister,

Thank-you for your email. I’m fully aware that this reply will probably just go into an in-box like the 1.7m others, but on the off-chance that somewhere, sometime, a human might glance at it here is my response.

I’m not an expert in these matters. However, I am a reasonably intelligent voter and tax-payer who has been using the roads for 25 years and I think my views have some validity. Here are the points I’d like to make:

1. There is a fundamental disconnect in government planning policy, increasing demand for road use just as we’re being told congestion is costing billions and CO2 emissions from the increasing usage is causing devastating damage to the environment. In my local area on the south coast:-

a/ A major local hospital A&E unit is closing. It is somehow more ‘efficient’ to centralise to another hospital, 15 miles away, accessible only by travelling through two of the area’s worst traffic bottlenecks.
b/ In the last 5 years, several out-of-town retail parks have been built. I’m sure it’s theoretically possible to travel there by bus and travel home again with a week's shopping, but no-one with any option would even consider it when the alternative, to use a car, is so much more comfortable and convenient.
c/ Also in the last 5 years, several commercial office and industrial unit have also been built on the edge of local towns, each with a large car-park, and near major roads.
d/ Several thousand new houses are going to be built on the edge of a nearby town. There will be no school, shops, leisure facilities, or significant employment opportunities in this development, all it will lead to is thousands of additional road journeys as the residents travel to school, work, etc
e/ Our local post-office will close. The nearest one is two miles away.

Each of these developments, all controlled by central or local government, will lead directly to increased demand for road traffic. The alternative, a strategy encouraging self-contained communities with integral work, education, health, leisure and retail facilities, safe bicycle routes and cheap, clean, safe public transport just doesn’t appear to be part of government thinking at all. Surely that’s where the answers lie, not in taxing travel?

2. We, the tax payer, just don’t trust government not to start with a zero-net gain tax level on these schemes, and then just ratchet it up to feed the bottomless maw of Treasury spending. Sorry Gordon, this means your lot. We’ve seen this on every indirect tax set by your and previous governments, including stamp duty, inheritance tax, Community taxes, personal allowances. We’ve also seen direct taxes climb to near 50% of our salaries, and I don’t want to think of indirect taxes I pay.

3. In addition, we don’t trust the Government to run this scheme efficiently. Your track record of large-scale IT projects in the public sector is abysmal, and the experience of London’s congestion charging scheme shows that the costs of running the scheme may just outweigh the revenues.
Neither do we trust you to spend any net revenue on public transport. Sorry, but we just don’t, only a fraction of the billions currently raised by taxes on fuel, road-tax and VAT on related services go towards roads or public transport, and we don’t expect this to change.

4. And we don’t trust you not to miss-use the personal data that this scheme will generate.

5. In the past ‘simple’ technology led solutions to complex issues just haven’t worked. In the last 10 years, >5,000 ‘safety’ camera’s have been placed on the UK’s roads, ostensibly to prevent deaths and serious injury in road collisions. Yet, KSI numbers haven’t dropped in those 10 years. However unintended consequences include a growing lack of respect for the Police Service, erosion of driving standards, and creation of a large number of self-serving quangoes. None of these are to the long term benefit of society.

6. And by the way, I strongly suspect that the ‘£30B’ figure quoted as the cost of congestion is one of those number dreamt up by a treasury economist with a political objective to meet. Much like the ‘£1M’ cost quoted for every road collision fatality, where in reality <£100k are costs for damage, Emergency services and medical care, and the >£900k balance are vague opportunity costs.

7. And lastly, no-one is able to demonstrate how tax revenues from road pricing are going to be used to alleviate global warming.

In your last few months of office I hope you will bear these comments in mind as you continue to develop strategy in this area.


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