The prime minister has unveiled his new 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, but do his actions really match the rhetoric?

The recently upgraded A14: You cannot build your way out of congestion

How green is your government? It is a timely question with the UK due to host the next round of global climate talks, COP26, next year, and with a decree absolute from the EU and its robust environmental legislation just weeks away. Even more pertinent, how green is the government’s transport policy?

At this point let me insert a perspective. Government is an amorphous body, and it is perfectly possible for conflicting policies to exist across different departments. For my three and a half years as a transport minister, the Department for Transport had a policy of restricting car use in city centres, both for environmental and economic reasons. DfT research showed, perhaps surprisingly, that people who arrive in city centres on foot or on bike or bus, spend more in shops than people who arrive in cars. Meanwhile, over the same timeframe, the communities department (CLG) under Eric Pickles (whom a Tory wag once told me was the only politician you could find on Google Earth) pursued the opposite policy. He wanted to make it as easy as possible for a driver to park outside a shop, even suggesting that drivers should be treated leniently when they commit parking offences or bus lane infringements. I would not be surprised if the same dichotomy exists today.

So to answer the exam question, we need to look across all departments and synthesise their actions. We also need to be prepared to separate the spin from the substance.

Talking of which, we now have the prime minister’s 10-point plan for the environment. It had to be 10, of course. Nine would have given the impression they had run out of ideas, whereas 11 would have looked a bit messy. Presentation before policy.

Call me cynical, but this announcement fits into a well-rutted Boris Johnson furrow that has previously wooed us with wacky ideas like a new airport somewhere down the Thames Estuary or a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland. As the veteran and astute Westminster watcher Andrew Rawnsley wrote in last Sunday’s Observer, the prime minister “prefers to live in the future, that land of dreams where your failure to deliver on your promises has yet to catch up with you. The future is a much happier territory for him than the now”.

So we have some pie-in-the-sky talk about zero-emission planes and carbon capture clusters. It also raises the suspicion that the trumpeted commitment to net zero in 2050 has been easy to make, simply because nobody responsible for this target will be here in 2050 to explain why it has been missed. Johnson will be lucky to make 2022, the way things are going.

The 10-point plan included £20m dedicated to clean maritime technology. Now this is actually quite important. International agreements have made it difficult to tackle the polluting emissions from ships. But wait, the very same day the PM announced this £20m, the UK voted in a meeting of the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that regulates shipping, to weaken short-term emissions rules for shipping. They will now be allowed to keep rising for the next 10 years. The spin, and the substance.

Meanwhile back on firm land, or terra cotta as John Prescott is alleged to have called it, the 10-point plan confirmed the much trailed titbit that the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles will end by 2030. There is, however, in the small print a caveat to allow hybird vehicles to roll off the production line up to 2035. Even so, this is a welcome development, and actually one of the most ambitious targets anywhere in the world, although Norway beats us with a 2025 phase out. Nevertheless, it is a good signal and the car industry will respond accordingly and probably make it happen.

The government has also somewhat belatedly realised that there is little point in changing the diesel and petrol vehicle fleet to electric if there are not enough charging points around the country, and has now indicated it will spend £1.3bn on rectifying this deficiency.

What a pity they did not start earlier. Back in 2010, the then transport secretary Philip Hammond and I wanted to make it a requirement that all new homes be fitted with a charge point. It would have added just £35 to the cost of a house. Our plan was blocked by, yes, Eric Pickles, who did not want to add to any costs for housebuilders.

Back in 2010, the then transport secretary Philip Hammond and I wanted to make it a requirement that all new homes be fitted with a charge point

There is also at last some recognition that the national grid has to be upgraded to cope with what will be considerable extra demand. And the commitment to offshore wind is welcome, even if its likely reach has been overstated. It has also been announced a number of times before. There was, however, nothing about onshore wind or solar power in the plan. Instead, we were dangled the idea of a phalanx of pocket-sized nuclear power stations. It is worth remembering that we were told in the 1950s that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter”. Instead it has proved hopelessly uneconomic, as well as environmentally dangerous.

I once asked NIREX, the body then responsible for nuclear waste “disposal”, how they intended to alert future generations hundreds of years hence to the presence of still radioactive material down their deep mineshafts. They told me they were considering stone monuments at the entrances into which would be carved the necessary information. Back to the stone age with the nuclear industry.

One nettle which has not yet been grasped is the need for an inter-urban road pricing scheme. Treasury officials are only too aware that a huge income stream from fuel duty will disappear down the plughole as petrol and diesel sales dry up, but ministers are scared to act.

For the Treasury, it is a matter of money but a switch to road pricing would be good for the environment too. If motorists have to pay per mile, they will give greater thought to when they use the car and how far they drive. Such a scheme could also vary the charge according to the emissions of the vehicle, or the time of day as a way of tackling congestion. By contrast, some drivers who have paid for a year’s VED feel encouraged to drive more to get their money’s worth, as it were. And the present structure of VED is not even sensibly related to the environmental footprint of the vehicle.

I do actually believe that the government’s commitment to the roll out of electric vehicles is genuine, not least because transport secretary Grant Shapps is personally enthusiastic about it. But electric vehicles take us only so far. They do nothing to tackle congestion, and nothing to help those without a car.

The car is once again centre stage, like in an old episode of Sale Of The Century hosted by the genial Nicholas Parsons, but minus the scantily clad females draped over the bonnet. If you need any proof for this just look at the £27bn road building programme. This is as ungreen as you can get. There is the loss of countryside, a national asset Johnson flagged up in his 10-point plan. No amount of tree planting, however many times it is reannounced, will cover the scars. There is the deleterious effect on rail along the same corridor as any “improved” road. There is the noise and air pollution and effect on wildlife.

just look at the £27bn road building programme. This is as ungreen as you can get

Nor does road building achieve what its proponents baldly state. So-called relief roads simply buy time before the extra capacity fills up with vehicles attracted onto the new stretches. You cannot build your way out of congestion. The DfT has known this for decades, ever since the ground-breaking 1994 report by the snappily named Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA). This inconvenient truth is the herd of elephants in the road building room.

The main driver for the roads programme is to be found in the Treasury, where they count the investment and the short-term jobs created, and pay little heed to how matters will look 10 years down the line.

If I have left public transport to the end, it is because the PM appears to treat it as an afterthought. His 10-point plan barely mentions public transport, except to rehash already made announcements. Yet any meaningful environment policy, any meaningful decarbonisation strategy, would put public transport centre stage.

To be fair, the emergency support given to bus and rail since March has been quite generous, much more so than in some other countries. Without it, rail franchises would have collapsed and the bus network largely vanished. I was tempted to say decimated, but as biblically inclined readers will know, that means a loss of one in 10. If bus services had truly been decimated in recent years, that would have produced a better position than the one we face today.

The DfT is diligently working away on the national bus strategy, now delayed along with the Williams review on rail. The government says it wants to build back better, It also wants to “level up” the country. Both these objectives require a boost to public transport funding and usage.

Yet the Treasury, spooked by the state of the nation’s finances, is now talking about fare increases on the trains and asking why they are paying for largely empty carriages to run up and down the tracks. The logic of their position would be to cut services, raise fares, and in doing so actually get fewer people on the trains and less income as a result.

There is much in government going on that is good for the environment, including the push for electric vehicles, the commitment to a national bus strategy, the rail reopenings programme, and the overarching decarbonisation plan. But in this amorphous government, there are decisions and policies that pull in exactly the opposite direction. It needs a strong and diligent prime minister to pull this all together into a coherent whole and make sure all departments are working in harmony for common goals. Unfortunately we have Boris Johnson.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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