ESSAY: The political engagement’s off

Austin Williams | October 2007

The e:petitions web page was launched on Number 10’s website in November 2006 ‘enabling anyone to address and deliver a petition directly to the Prime Minister.’ Presumably, someone thought that it would be a good wheeze to minimise the photo opportunities for aggreived members of the public to present a paper petition to the Prime Minister in full view of the waiting media. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Such is the parlous state of the British government, that a list of emails – admittedly a very long list of emails – has sent ministers into a tailspin.

Peter Roberts, a mild-mannered account manager from Telford, submitted a relatively mundane petition: ‘We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy’. On face value, it is hardly the stuff of revolution, but it reflects concern at the drift towards monitoring and penalising motorists above and beyond the road tax, speed camera penalties, petrol duty, parking charges and insurance costs that seem to creep inexorably upwards. After all, the government takes around £45billion a year in taxes from road-users, and spends no more than £7billion of it on the roads. The petition also taps into annoyance at the recent report by Rod Eddington, the ex-British Airways chief executive-turned-government adviser on transport matters, who states gleefully that reducing the amount of traffic on the existing inadequate road network is more cost-effective than building more roads to cater for them. Using an economists’ logic, not expending money on new roads and pricing drivers off the existing network will reduce congestion and actually make money in the process. On this basis, for Eddington, road-pricing is a ‘no-brainer’. However, at the time of going to press, over 1.5 million signatories to Roberts’ petition, each one allegedly devoid of Eddington’s mental acuity, are not in agreement.

Let’s be perfectly honest, I’m sure that we’ve all had a sneaky suspicion that the government’s interminable consultation strategies have had very little to do with a genuine search for public input and were more to do with encouraging interest groups to rubber-stamp a package of pre-determined objectives. Treasury inspired ‘realistic’ restraint, as opposed to aspirational development, has been the hallmark of government consultations since the flagship transport White Paper, way back in 1997, in which the respondent is offered choices such as: ‘To what extent should we be looking at the potential for restraining use of the car?’ or ‘What can we do to reduce peoples’ need to travel?’ This is hardly open democracy. But without any pressure to change the terms of the debate, restriction rather than expansion has framed the government’s response to transport issues ever since. This has been a government that has sought to reduce use, rather than increase infrastructural provision.

At the beginning of last year, the Government’s Transport Innovation Fund dangled £7.5 million (with a promise of extending the scheme up to around £300 million) for a consultation process with a select band of local authorities, ostensibly for them to explore issues around road pricing – from congestion charging to pay-per-mile travel, from workplace parking charges to park and ride – ‘innovative ways to tackle local congestion as a step towards longer term national decisions on road pricing’. A cursory examination of the criteria shows that this exercise has little to do with an open and frank discussion about real solutions to transport problems, but was, and is, simply a highly prescriptive debate in which the answer and outcome are given at the outset. Any local authority offering the opinion that traffic flows are OK will have their funding cut. That’s quite an incentive to play ball. Those that don’t will have a government appointed “traffic director” imposed on their elected members. So, in most of these so-called consultations there is an unwritten rule that you should join in, but only if you know your place. Ironically, the e:petition site has opened up an arena for less sychophantic public engagement, much to the consternation of the government. Some key questions ought to be addressed while this public space for debate around transport issues remains open.

Build more

There has been no new infrastructure built in this country for years. After a major slump in rail travel in the 60s and 70s, passenger numbers on the rail network have just climbed back up to 1963 levels, the year in which the railways were slashed by a third. An economist might call this a 30% efficiency per passenger – without acknowledging the increased overcrowding, discomfort and inconvenience thus caused. The 85 or so miles of the Channel Tunnel Rail link is the first piece of passenger rail system built for a hundred years. Nowadays, there are 28% more passengers on London Underground as there were ten years ago, but no new tube lines.

While the number of vehicles on the roads has grown by over 80% since 1980, motorways (consistently accounting for less than 1% of the total road length in the UK since 1980) grew by 150 miles between 1995 –2005 and major trunk road construction has hardly fared any better (although the definition of these roads has changed in the interim). The main increase in the road network comes from new minor roads and housing estate access roads. It is hardly surprising that congestion is getting worse. Britain has exactly half the motorway density (the amount of motorways per land area) compared to Germany. A survey by the Road Users’ Alliance indicates that, on average, roads in England were last resurfaced in 1950 while those in Wales were last resurfaced in 1907, the year that Bleriot flew across the Channel.

The congestion myth

Ten years ago, a European Commission report suggested that the cost of congestion in the UK was equivalent to 3.2 per cent of GDP. Subsequent surveys by the CBI consistently put the loss to the economy at about £20 billion a year, while the Adam Smith Institute suggests £18 billion. Eddington arguing that ‘eliminating existing congestion… would be worth some £7 – 8 billion of GDP per annum.’ But without putting too fine a point on it, these figures – which have become congestion mantras and are regularly quoted to prove the damaging effects of car driving – are tosh.

In the first instance, there is no clear definition of what congestion means. It is generally intended to describe a situation where the volume of traffic exceeds the free flow capacity of a given stretch of road. But, as one early academic report put it, “if all vehicles were able to reach free flow speed on all roads at all times, there would be a tremendously costly over-provision of road space”. Unless we build roads to suit every individual travel pattern, congestion – defined in these relatively meaningless terms – will always be with us.

Second, the costs of congestion have been taken to the nth degree, and include “social costs” such as the monetary effect of poor employee performance caused by the stress of being stuck in traffic, various “environmental costs” and Eddington has even included ‘personal satisfaction’ and ‘happiness’ as a costed benefit! Even though ‘congestion’ doesn’t have a meaningful, quantifiable definition, it doesn’t stop commentators repeating that a 5% reduction in travel for all businesses could generate £2.5 billion of cost savings (0.2% GDP). This is simply made up.

While 85 percent of journeys in Britain are by cars, vans and taxis, in London, roughly 85 percent of journeys are by public transport. These figures have remained fairly constant for the last ten years. But with Ken Livingstone getting in on the faux consultation bandwagon, the daily congestion charge has risen from £5 to £8, and the zone will be extended by 75 percent from next week. While everyone meekly accepts the need for congestion charging as the best way forward, in 2003 just before the congestion charge was introduced, there were the same number of cars driving in central London as there were in 1963. Congestion has increased as roadspace has reduced.

Challenge environmental parameters

In China, the central government has invested a total of £40 billion providing 26,000 miles of expressway between 1990 – 2005, compared to the 2,200 miles of motorway in Britain built since 1959. The ambitious aim of the Chinese government is that by 2010, over 95% of rural areas will have access to asphalt or cement roads. Meanwhile, British Transport Minister, Dr Stephen Ladyman proudly boasts that ‘from 2006–07 through to 2007–08 we expect to complete two national schemes, which collectively will deliver approximately 6.3 miles of road improvements to the network.’

Trying to maximise the productive returns for the least amount of expenditure becomes a miserly objective, beloved of environmentalists who see China’s dynamic approach to infrastructural development as dangerous instead of liberating. The old notion of, for example, ‘predict and provide’ – that is, the supply-side policy of assessing what the road capacity is likely to be and providing sensible infrastructural capacity to meet it – is no longer even on the table. Nobody seems to question why not; it just isn’t. Such is the dominance of the economics of demand reduction – the make-do-and-mend school of infrastructural provision in the name of reducing our ‘inherently damaging’ use of resources – that it is almost as if it would be a terrible social faux-pas to call for increased provision. Those that do, incur the pity and scorn of environmentalists, who condescend to remind them that they haven’t grasped the ‘real magnitude of the environmental problem’. So the notion that you might want to think about alleviating the stress on the network by building more infrastructure to cope with increased demand, is apparently such a dumb thought as to invite patronising scoffs. In this climate, cutbacks are the pinnacle of rationality. Eddington lectures us that the piecemeal management of the existing infrastructure is more cost effective than building new and warns us against being ‘seduced by “grand projets”’. He concludes that ‘ambitions and dreams of extensive new networks… should be put on hold… some of the best projects are small-scale, such as walking and cycling.’

While such chattering class sanctimony maintains the moral highground in public debate, its not one-way traffic. The fact that British environmentalist George Monbiot hopes, at the very least, that his book, ‘Heat: How to stop the planet burning’ will “make people so depressed about the state of the planet that they stay in bed all day, thereby reducing their consumption of fossil fuels” makes you realise that we need to engage in a more robust response to the general mood of miserablism. Online consultations might not do it, but without such pressure, Tony Blair has made clear that “we cannot build our way out of the problems we face” and he will use pragmatic environmentalism to defend his position. Once these parameters are accepted, the solutions can only be found in personal restraint rather than improved infrastructure. Admittedly, the online petition is a somewhat passive response to the state of the world, but it has galvanised a spirit of critical resistance that should be congratulated.

Political engagement counts

The government has not so charitable. Communities secretary Ruth Kelly has said that petitions are a good test of public opinion on a particular issue “but what they don’t judge is the overall terms of the debate, the choices that politicians have to make in a representative democracy.” Leftist Denis MacShane MP for Rotherham is even more condescending stating that ‘the clamour of the mob is often close to insanity.” Pretending that he is mostly concerned with debate and critical of the media, he says: ‘No sane politician wants to take on 1.3 million people, but the plain fact is that British history is littered with great expression of public opinion which turned out to be disastrously wrong.’ I’m afraid, Denis, that’s democracy for you; and it is better than the alternatives. The problem, of course, is when ‘we, the people’ demand things that the government don’t like.

The government’s general confusion about how to deal with this unexpected result of democratic engagement shows a palpable sense of political exhaustion on all sides of the spectrum. Tom Steinberg, the man responsible for the e:petition website – which, until a few weeks ago, was hailed as a model of participatory democracy at work – now distances himself from the venture by pretending that it is merely a flippant exercise with no real content. ‘Academic research,’ he says, ‘shows people are more willing to sign a petition than engage in any other kind of political activity.’ Fellow e:pundit Ben Page of Mori Social Research also downplays any significance of the site: ‘It just requires a click’ he says. Others have complained that, like the Today programme’s Christmas poll (won by an ‘orchestrated campaign’ by The Countryside Alliance) that encouraging friends, family and work colleagues to join in the petition this is an unfair abuse the democratic system. Somehow, political lobbying – something that is so sadly lacking in mainstream politics today – is blamed for the numbers of people signing up. Effectively a site that was set up to nominally rebuild a sense of public participation and social solidarity is chastised for it encouraging too much solidarity.

Desperate to avoid discussing uncomfortable problems, presumably government wonks thought the petition site would be a jolly talking shop that would satisfy the participants. Funnily enough, the fact that the government seems to be running scared of a simple letter-writing campaign exposes its weakness and actually encourages people to have a pop. In the process of trying to engage people, it has intensified division.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth take the government to court and get the government’s nuclear power consultation thrown out as ‘judicially unfair’. The government is on dangerous territory here. Once the merits of legal challenge are deemed to be more meretricious than simple democratic challenges, Friends of the Earth’s dismissive attitude to the democratic process could catch on. So whereas 1.5 million ordinary individuals make their feelings felt about the iniquitous nature of road-pricing; an unelected environmental organisation can halt government policy by dragging them through the courts. Where does that leave the democratic mandate?


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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