Seven-year fuel duty freeze has resulted in more pollution and congestion and fewer journeys by public transport, says Greener Journeys report

 

The seven-year fuel duty freeze ‘has resulted in a 4% increase in traffic since 2011’

 

When the Tory-led coalition government took power in 2010, transport secretary Philip Hammond pledged to “end the war on the motorist”. Fuel duty for motorists has not increased since January 2011.

While many motorists have applauded this policy, others question whether it was a sensible thing to do during a period of austerity – especially when you consider that oil prices have fallen during this time, so an increase in fuel duty would have been relatively painless.

But now, thanks to a new report from sustainable transport group Greener Journeys, written by former government transport advisor Professor David Begg, some of the unintended – although predicable – outcomes of this policy have been revealed.

According to Begg’s research, as a direct result of the seven-year freeze on fuel duty freeze, prices at the pump are 13% lower than they would otherwise have been. This has resulted in a 4% increase in traffic since 2011 and a decrease of between 1.3% and 3.9% in public transport usage, causing there to be up to 60 million fewer rail journeys and up to 200 million fewer bus journeys annually.

This modal shift in favour less sustainable transport modes has caused an extra 4.5 million tonnes of harmful carbon dioxide emissions

This modal shift in favour less sustainable transport modes has caused an extra 4.5 million tonnes of harmful carbon dioxide emissions – including 2.8 million from cars and taxis and 1.7 million from lorries and vans. It has also caused as an additional 12,000 tonnes of dangerous NOx emissions and 816 tonnes of PM10 particles.

The report, The Unintended Consequences of Freezing Fuel Duty, warns that unless a new way to pay for road use is introduced, traffic on our roads will increase by an additional 30% by 2035. This is on top of the 40% growth in traffic already predicted by the Department for Transport, leading to an overall increase in traffic of 70%.

Greener Journeys points out that the new research comes as the government faces growing pressure to tackle to the UK’s air quality crisis, “which is causing between 40,000 and 50,000 deaths a year”. Its Clean Air Strategy was criticised by campaigners last month who said the proposals did not do enough to address the root cause of the pollution crisis – the number of diesel cars and vans on the roads.

Fuel duty has not increased since January 2011, when it was increased from 58.19p per litre to 58.95p per litre. It was cut by 1p per litre in the budget two months later, and has since been frozen. The freeze in fuel duty has cost the Treasury approximately £7bn in lost tax revenue. In addition, there had been less rail revenue and more rail subsidy.

Separate research by Greener Journeys has shown that congestion has had a detrimental impact on the bus sector, causing bus speeds to fall by on average 10% every decade, and bus passenger numbers to drop by up to 14%.

Begg, who chaired the government’s Commission for Integrated Transport between 1999 and 2005, wants Philip Hammond, who is now chancellor, to redress the balance.

Whilst the freeze in fuel duty has been welcomed by many road users there have been unintended consequences in terms of increased pollution and congestion and a shift from public transport to car use

“Whilst the freeze in fuel duty has been welcomed by many road users there have been unintended consequences in terms of increased pollution and congestion and a shift from public transport to car use, which policy makers should be aware of if they continue with this policy,” he said.

“The chancellor has said he will increase fuel duty in line with inflation at the next budget. It is vital that government delivers on this commitment as a minimum if it is to send the right price signals to consumers.”

The UK’s air pollution crisis is reaching “crisis point”, says Greener Journeys with 38 of England’s 43 air quality zones breaching EU legal limits for NOx emissions.

Claire Haigh, the chief executive of Greener Journeys, commented: “The price of fuel is one of the most politically divisive issues in the country. However, we know that diesel cars and vans are the biggest contributors to harmful NOx emissions, which are creating a public health emergency in the UK.

“If ever there was a moment for government to be honest with the public and show leadership it’s now. We urgently need a shift from car to bus and other forms of sustainable transport if we are to tackle the UK’s air pollution crisis and reduce congestion on our roads.”

 

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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