Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

 
I must confess to being a touch surprised by an article in The Guardian on June 3. It reported that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders had written to the government asking for £1.5bn support package to incentivise the purchase of new cars to help the automotive industry recover from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. My surprise wasn’t at the general principle of such a request, but that the SMMT has asked for this bailout to apply to the manufacture and purchase of diesel and petrol cars, as well as electric cars. This would drive a coach and horses through this department’s decarbonisation agenda generally, quite apart from our policy to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2035.

So I asked around my colleagues how we might respond to the SMMT’s request, only to discover that the letter had been sent to the chancellor of the exchequer and the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, copied to the exchequer secretary and to No. 10. Curious, don’t you think that the SMMT saw fit to completely bypass this department despite being at the forefront of the decarbonisation agenda and the policy to phase out petrol and diesel cars! Thanks SMMT!

SMMT’s request that we should actively kick-start the manufacture and sale of petrol and diesel cars seems somewhat out of step with the general mood of the moment

There’s nothing surprising in the SMMT calling for a government support package to help the automotive industry recover from the impact of the pandemic. But when there is so much pressure to ensure that we emerge from this pandemic by prioritising “green” initiatives – something that our secretary of state was at pains to emphasise at the daily No 10 press conference on June 4 – the SMMT’s request that we should actively kick-start the manufacture and sale of petrol and diesel cars seems somewhat out of step with the general mood of the moment.

And the SMMT’s position is rather insensitive to the COVID-19 issue anyway – a virus that is most dangerous for those with serious respiratory problems, so the SMMT happily seeks a support package to manufacture and sell cars which, er, contribute to air pollution and serious respiratory problems for many people. Nice!

Of course, all of this highlights the dilemma we face here in Great Minster House. For years now, even decades, we’ve been trying to find ways to encourage modal shift away from the car to public transport, to try and break the British public’s love affair with the motor car. But today, faced with this pandemic, we are introducing measures – social distancing – specifically designed to discourage public transport use. OK, so we want people to switch to walking and cycling and other sustainable forms of transport mode. But the reality is that as we discourage public transport use, so we will be encouraging greater use of the car, with the SMMT itself wanting the government to introduce a support package which encourages the take up of past technologies rather than focusing on the take up of future, green technologies.

Surely we should only be supporting measures that look to the future, not the past, and we should certainly not be supporting the manufacture and purchase of petrol and diesel cars which in just 15 years’ time we want to see increasingly phased out

It’s all back to front. The SMMT letter has, in a number of ways, thrown up the challenges and contradictions that now lie at the heart of policy making. We want to support the automotive industry as it recovers from the pandemic. Of course we do. But surely we should only be supporting measures that look to the future, not the past, and we should certainly not be supporting the manufacture and purchase of petrol and diesel cars which in just 15 years’ time we want to see increasingly phased out. Hardly surprising, perhaps, that the SMMT saw fit to exclude our secretary of state in the correspondence it has initiated with the government to promote the £1.5bn support package.

I wonder if we will see evidence of joined up government in dealing with the SMMT request. It is stated government policy to phase out petrol and diesel cars. The government has an ambitious decarbonisation agenda. The right response to the SMMT should be to agree to a support package, but only one that promotes sustainable, electric car manufacture and purchase. I hope this department has the courage to intervene and make it crystal clear that the support package requested must be rooted in the principles of the decarbonisation agenda. I sense a standoff developing between those who simply want to reboot the economy and those who want to reboot it but only in a sustainable and “green” way. Where are the script writers of Yes Minster when you need them?

I used to hate those days when I needed to commute into London. Now I pine for them

Meanwhile, as we appear to be edging slowly out of lockdown, how’s it been for you? I used to hate those days when I needed to commute into London. Now I pine for them. I’ll almost forgive my train operator for being late and giving out endless conflicting messages about when my train might arrive or why it’s late! OK, I can technically use the train. But it will be three-quarters empty! What’s the fun in that? No longer the ram-packed carriages with no chance of a seat. None of the joys of standing face-to-face, or nose-to-armpit, with some fellow commuter! We’ve taken all the fun out of commuting, for now at least. I want an end to social distancing so I can once again enjoy the true pleasures of commuting which, come on, let’s be honest, we all secretly loved as it gave us something to complain about!

 
MORE GREAT MINISTER GRUMBLES:

We’re in for some really turbulent times ahead

Is the era of privatised public transport over?

Will we retain some of our new greener habits?

Bus industry bailout raises questions

Will office culture be a thing of the past?

 
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