Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Thatcherite Environmentalism Anybody?

It is now 30 years since the rise of Margaret Thatcher, and the introduction of her policies that celebrated and accelerated conspicuous consumption and the wasteful energy use that came with it. Surprisingly however, it was also Thatcher who was amongst the first major politicians to recognise that Climate Change was a matter to be treated seriously.

Thatcher as eco-warrior might be stretching credibility too far – but, perhaps we can recycle some of her policies to reduce environmental damage –in particular, the effects of private car use in Bristol.

Thatcher’s success came because she redrew the political landscape in the UK – she decimated the Labour vote by the simple expedient of giving their traditional supporters self-interest in an expanding economy. Once these nouveau capitalists had a stake in economic and financial growth they realised that it was Tory policies that would increase the value of their stake. Voting Tory became a guilty secret and self-interest won elections. Political analysts wondered if Labour would ever win another election – and, in truth, they never did.

What does this have to do with car use in Bristol? Well, perhaps it is time for Bristol City Council to appeal to the self-interest of the motoring majority. Nobody, including car drivers, is happy with the level of traffic congestion in Bristol. The core problem, recognised by everybody, is the sheer number of cars travelling into the city centre during the rush hour, and the equally obvious solution is to introduce congestion charging to reduce the number of cars coming into the city centre. But, for congestion charging to be introduced it requires car drivers to vote for something that will require them to either change their preferred mode of travel or to pay for something that they currently get for nothing. Not a vote winning combination.

What car drivers want is congestion reduction that will cost them nothing and have no impact upon their own ability to drive to work whilst removing other car drivers, thus freeing up road space for them. In effect, they want something for nothing.

The city centre day time workforce consists of approximately 105,000 workers. This includes roughly 60,000 who travel to work by car, large enough to block any introduction of congestion charging…..unless they are given a Thatcher-like self-interest in congestion charging, convincing them to vote in favour of it not against. The only way to do that is by giving enough of them exactly what they want – something for nothing.

Of the 60,000 odd workers who travel to work in the city centre by car between 25% and 30% live outside the Bristol City Unitary Authority boundary. My proposal is simple; all car drivers who pay Bristol City Council Tax are exempt from congestion charging and the price of the congestion charge is set at a level that will discourage at least half of the car drivers from outside the city from paying it.

For example, if we assume that a congestion charge of £10 per day would discourage 50% of drivers from outside the city, than this would reduce overall car traffic travelling into the city centre by between 12-15% whilst providing £18-£23 million pound per year in congestion charging revenue - providing a considerable investment fund for public transport improvements that will encourage more car usage reductions inside the city. If a £15 per day charge discouraged 70% of drivers that would result in a 17-21% drop in car usage whilst still recovering £17-£20 million in revenues.

Maybe it is time for a bit of self-interest – this time used for the greater interest of all of us living in the City of Bristol.


  1. In effect you're saying that Bristol should charge non-residents for driving into the city centre area with charges set at a level that will halve the number doing so.

    1. What if the neighbouring authorities impose charges on Bristol residents driving out of the city? They'd have just as much right to do so. That includes car trips to Bristol Airport, Parkway Station, Cribbs Causeway, etc.

    2. The reduced congestion in Bristol would encourage more Bristol residents to drive, quite possible completely replacing the out-of-town drivers. So nothing much achieved except an some additional tax.

  2. "1. What if the neighbouring authorities impose charges on Bristol residents driving out of the city? They'd have just as much right to do so. That includes car trips to Bristol Airport, Parkway Station, Cribbs Causeway, etc."

    And the problem with this is?

    Bristol residents choose to shop more locally rather than in a neighbouring authority that has built a shopping centre designed to encourage car use. In order to maintain the viability of Cribbs Causeway, the Prudential would have to invest private money in providing much better public transport access from Bristol - perhaps by opening the Henbury loop line or investing in the North Fringe BRT link.

    Bristol residents choose to use a non-car method of travelling to Bristol Airport (BIA) or choose not to travel to BIA at all. If the latter, this will reduce the effect of one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions in the local area. If the former than BIA will have to invest private funds in better public transport links with Bristol.

    Bristol residents choose to access Parkway via bus or rail, or travel from Temple Meads. The reason why Parkway was built was to allow drivers to drive to a railway station instead of using public transport. Again, if Network Rail/First Great Western wanted to maintain the viability of the station they would have to look at investing in better public transport links.

    The overall effect for all your examples is a reduction in car use, carbon emissions and an encouragement of private investment in the public transport infrastructure.

  3. True, but the point is that the government wouldn't allow such tit-for-tat charging to develop, so they wouldn't allow the voters of one authority to chose to impose charges on the residents of a neighbouring authority.

    If we follow the same logic and apply it more locally (as Greens like to do?) then the residents of each street would impose charges on non-residents to drive down their street, etc. That would kill off the car I suppose, but for that reason it just wouldn't be permitted by central government.

    I think the principle of referenda is that the people who might be adversely affected by a proposal have the right to vote on it. What you're suggesting denies them that right.

  4. "the residents of each street would impose charges on non-residents to drive down their street, etc. That would kill off the car I suppose, but for that reason it just wouldn't be permitted by central government."

    Change the word drive to park and doesn't that give us Resident Parking Zones? I don't see the government stepping in to stop that happening although car drivers who currently park in the zone (but live outside it) might argue that they are adversely affected by it but didn't get the right to vote in a referendum?

    Likewise (and stretching the logical argument a little further), will the government step in to stop the Lib Dems cancelling the incinerator programme on the basis that to do so will impose charges on the two neighbouring authorities of North Somerset and South Glos (and thus their residents)?

  5. Residents' Parking is a little different to what you're proposing because it doesn't deny anyone the right to free use of the public highway, only charging those who obstruct it by parking.

    I still think your proposal is flawed in that it involves one group of people voting to restrict the freedom of movement of another group who have no vote. I think a lot of people would be worried about the principle of that.

  6. To once again repeat your own comments made on another thread.

    "Overcrowding on trains, as with congestion anywhere else, occurs because demand exceeds supply. This is easily resolved by adjusting the price upwards to balance the two."

    Why should road use be different from trains? Bristol City council spends some £30 million per annum on transport & roads, of which council tax payers contribute over £14 million. Yet motorists from outside the authority area use that resource at no cost. Why shouldn’t Bristol city council be able to charge for a resource for which demand exceeds effective supply? It would be difficult to imagine a situation where rail or bus travel into Bristol city centre was free for residents of, say, South Gloucestershire but charged for residents of Bristol. If the cost of maintaining roads is £30 million and residents of local authorities use 30% of the resource, surely it is fair and just to expect them to pay at least £9 million towards the upkeep of that resource? If the level of road demand by non-Bristolian road users continues to exceed effective supply they can adjust the price upwards to balance the two.

    "People have choices about where they live and work. If they choose to live in Bath, Weston or Yate and work in Bristol then they are choosing to be dependent on FGW. If they don't like that they have the option of choosing a more sustainable lifestyle."

    In the same way, people who choose to live outside Bristol but work in the city, choose to place their transport options in the hands of the city of Bristol and thus its electorate. If you truly believe your earlier statement than I fail to see how you can object if the same argument is used to justify a charge for road usage.

    To say they don’t have a vote is nonsense, they have the same type of vote that is available for all resources in a free-market – they can choose to use an alternative. In this case they can choose to travel to Bristol by train, by bus or by cycle, or they could even move to Bristol or change job to work within their own local authority. That is a greater freedom of choice than currently on offer to many residents of inner city Bristol regarding whether their lives should continue to be blighted by the effects of heavy traffic. It is easier and cheaper for individuals to change their mode of transport than to change their place of abode.

  7. I can only repeat what I said before. I can't see a national government allowing local authorities to charge non-residents for using their roads. It would result in tit-for-tat pricing as each authority sought to get back as much money as its residents paid out to other authorities.

    I think there is a case for road pricing but with the money raised replacing tax revenues so that the overall tax / road pricing burden doesn't increase. If people could see that they might be significantly better off as a result (if they gave up using or owning a car) then they might support it.

  8. Really interesting idea. Not sure how fair it is for Bristol residents who live just over the border in South Gloucestershire, e.g. Filton, Hanham, Kingswood, etc just Staple hill etc.

    Alternatively what about a charging cordon for those that enter the Greater Bristol area from rural areas and other towns/cities, i.e. weston, portishead, Bath, Keynesham, Yate, Clevedon, Nailsea etc.