Jenny Jones: It’s time to restart the fuel duty escalator – and show we’re serious about our environment

Posted On: 
15th October 2018

Air pollution from cars is damaging our health and our environment. Instead of yet another freeze, the government should restart the fuel duty escalator and invest the proceeds in public transport, says Baroness Jones

"Promoting non-poisonous forms of transport should be a priority for the government and motorists. Theresa May clearly thinks otherwise."

The fuel duty escalator is a broken bit of policy. Theresa May used the prime spot at Conservative party conference to once again announce that fuel duty would be frozen for the ninth year running. The media spin was the usual rhetoric about being the motorist’s friend, but let’s examine that for a moment.

The Guardian recently ran a story about government plans to reduce the subsidy for the purchase of electric vehicles. That means that the chancellor is reducing the cost to gas-guzzling motorists by £800m, while increasing the cost to those people trying to do the right thing by going electric.

I wouldn’t argue that hybrids and electric vehicles are the only solution to the problems of climate change and air pollution, but they are part of the solution and they do have the advantage of not choking their drivers, passengers or nearby pedestrians. Personally, I think that promoting non-poisonous forms of transport should be a priority for the government and motorists. Theresa May clearly thinks otherwise.

The fuel duty escalator was introduced in March 1993 as a measure to stem the increase in pollution from road transport and cut the need for new road-building at a time of major road protests, at Twyford Down and other locations. The aim was to slowly increase the cost of motoring, while using the money to invest in the public transport infrastructure that would make it the practical and attractive alternative to driving. If the fuel duty escalator did its job, there would be a progressive switch towards a less car-dependent society.

The real-term change since 1980 has seen an increase in bus, coach and rail fares of 63%, combined with a 20% decrease in the cost of motoring. Put that alongside cuts to rural bus services and privatised railway companies who can’t deliver a reliable service, and it’s a negative spiral of more people taking to their cars.

London has been the exception to this rule, with successive mayors using the congestion charge money to finance improvements to public transport and to decrease road traffic by 1% a year over a long period (2000-2015), when the population was expanding by 1% a year. London is far from perfect, but it has at least been heading in the right direction.

Taken in isolation, the freeze on the fuel duty escalator might be seen as pandering to the mighty motoring lobby but it is part of a pattern of policies that make climate change worse – the cuts to the solar subsidies that have devastated an industry and cost thousands of jobs; the imposition of fracking on rural communities who don’t want it; the expansion of Heathrow, despite the electoral impact on Conservative-held London seats.

We have, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only a dozen years to reduce emissions and hopefully cap climate change at 1.5C. The fuel duty escalator needs to be fixed and restarted rapidly upwards. We need to travel less, but when we do travel we need to use electricity sourced from renewables and make public transport our priority. It’s not only essential for our long-term survival on this planet, it will also reduce air pollution which shortens the life of hundreds of thousands of people, including drivers, every year.    

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a Green Party peer