A leftwing case for a cut in petrol taxes

This post was written by Owen on April 11, 2010
Posted Under: Environment,Transport

There’s a lot to hate about cars. In the centuries to come after the great oil crash, when archaeologists are poring over the remains of our society (presumably by wind-up torchlight), some of the most powerful symbols of our mind-boggling wastefulness will be the images of endless traffic jams, hundreds upon thousands of sterile gas-guzzling metal boxes, each with four empty seats and one frustrated commuter at the wheel, furious that they’re not going anywhere because the roads are so congested, apparently oblivious to the fact that they’re part of the same sodding problem. We’re fixated on cars for the same reason we’re fixated on owning houses; convinced that the only way to be successful and happy is to carve out a space of your own, the bigger the better, with as little non-voluntary contact with other people as possible. Then, of course, there’s the pollution: the carbon emissions, the noxious effect on air quality and the noise. But the news that petrol prices have reached an all-time high (thanks to a combination of high oil prices, the weak pound and an increase in fuel duty) shouldn’t be something for green-inclined lefties to celebrate.

Image: The Sly Gentleman/flickr

I’d love a society where we’re less dependent on the internal combustion engine. I dream of the day when there are decent public transport links everywhere in the country and Dr. Beeching is burned in effigy. (Yes, I have odd and somewhat geeky dreams. I am aware of this and do not need it pointed out again. Thank you.) But raising taxes on petrol to get people out of their cars – which, according to Wikipedia is part of why fuel tax in the UK is so high and getting higher – isn’t going to achieve that, and is unfair and regressive to boot. There are some vehicles that I’d dearly love to see taxed off the road – Chelsea Tractors mainly, since it’s blindingly obvious that no one needs a four-by-four that’ll never go anywhere near a field – but taxing petrol is a very blunt instrument to achieve that. A lot of people have to drive, and plenty of those people aren’t rich. Sure, if you can afford to own and maintain a car you’re not going to be desperately poor, but you could easily be poor enough that having to shell out a hundred quid on a tank of petrol is going to hit you pretty hard. Whether it’s because their job requires them to transport a lot of equipment (as in the case of manual workers like plumbers or electricians), or because property prices have compelled them to live in an area with little to no public transport infrastructure (i.e. pretty much anywhere outside of cities), our society is such that a lot of people depend on cars or vans for their livelihood.

It would be great if that wasn’t the case, but if we’re going to start persuading people to use public transport, we need to make sure that there’s actually decent affordable public transport in place first (and better cycle routes, more research into renewables, more ways for people to work from home and so on and so forth). Our society can’t go on being as dependent on cars as we are now. I absolutely accept that. But trying to change that by hiking up fuel duty without providing any alternative to travel by car is just going to hurt those who spend the greatest proportion of their income on petrol already – the car-owning poor. Complaining about petrol prices may, at the moment, be the preserve of the Clarkson-worshipping petrolhead lobby, and I know it’s not pleasant to be on the same side as them in an argument. But in this case, they have a point.

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Reader Comments

Charlie

Nothing wrong with wanting Beeching burned in effigy.

#1 
Written By Charlie on April 11th, 2010 @ 1:03 pm
ASD

so you lower the tax, and somehow improve (increase subsidies to) public transport at the same time… how does this get paid for? its all very well making a wishlist.. i’m sure we’d all like lower tax on everything, a fabulous education system, a flawless NHS, a perfect democracy, free milk for children in schools…but right now, this country is hardly in a position to throw money around..

but in any case

what is your reasoning to demonstrate that lowering tax on petrol improves the state of play for the less well off? as far as i can tell it only improves the livelihoods of people who buy large quantities of petrol, whether poor or rich… if you really want to help those in dire economic situations i very much doubt that lowering fuel prices is the answer. And while on the subject of those in dire circumstances, last time I checked plumbers were better paid than the majority of people in white collar jobs who ride mass transit systems to work. maybe if you argued that lowering tax would some how boost local economies you could develop some sort of argument, but again i feel its a bit tenuous

just a gut feeling on that

#2 
Written By ASD on April 11th, 2010 @ 9:03 pm
ASD

another point, people choose where they live these days… if you want to live somewhere far away from public transport, then its your own fault when you have to pay high petrol prices..

furthermore i beg to differ with your assumption that high fuel prices won’t take people out of their cars.. in my opinion it clearly will.. people make decisions largely based on criteria of cost. given two options, you tend to go for the cheaper one, with convenience and desirability acting as factors also. at the point where a product becomes unfeasible in terms of cost it stops being used. Witness how with the introduction of the affordable model T car in the USA in the first decades of the 20th century the car ownership suddenly skyrocketed – having previously been the reserve of the hobbyist. Prior to the launch of the motor car people lived in cities and used the public transport to commute. As soon as the car became a cheap option the middle classes upped and left town to live in the open country – which quickly became suburbia – mass transit ridership fell, and the public transport infrastructures dissolved.

in fact you’ve made this argument yourself when you say that lowering the cost of public transport will attract more commuters…

so by your logic, raising prices on private motor transport has no effect, whereas lowering the prices on public transport doesnt have effect.. LOGIC FAIL

#3 
Written By ASD on April 11th, 2010 @ 9:15 pm
ASD

*lowering the prices on public transport does have an effect* I meant to say there

#4 
Written By ASD on April 11th, 2010 @ 9:17 pm
Jacob

To clarify (I hope) Owen’s point about how it benefits the poorer parts of society to lower the tax, you need to look at two economic elements: firstly, minimal car use is extremely inelastic. Poor people who /need/ to use a car will use it however expensive fuel costs are and are therefore liable to end up spending a large proportion of their income on this when the tax is high. This is what Owen means when he says it is a blunt tool – by targetting the more elastic non-necessary car journeys you have a nasty side-effect of taxing the poor very highly. Secondly, the tax is regressive. I.e. if Joe Bloggs needs to get somewhere in a car, he will end up paying a larger proportion of his income on tax to do so if he is poor than if he is rich. Fixed taxes fuck poor people, which is why we should be trying to do away with them.

#5 
Written By Jacob on April 11th, 2010 @ 10:27 pm
Roland M

As one of the left wing greenies you talk about I disagree. Sure I agree that it is inequitable to increase petrol tax without providing other forms of transport. However, the reality is that we are simply running out of oil. The International Energy Agency has warned that we are likely to reach peak oil very soon, if we are not already there now. Fuel is going to get progressively more expensive until it is prohibitive. Your proposal is a short term fix that would not really alleviate poverty. What is really needed is for the government to rapidly deploy a public transport system so our society is prepared for this massive shock that will inevitably hit us.

#6 
Written By Roland M on April 12th, 2010 @ 9:04 am
Owen

OK, a lot to address here. First, Jacob’s absolutely right – my main point is that at present a lot of people – many of them not at all well off – simply don’t have any choice but to drive, whether out of economic necessity (i.e. for work) or simply because there isn’t any decent public transport where they live. (And no, ASD, I don’t accept that people ‘choose where they live’. If that was true I’d be living in a large house overlooking Regent’s Park, not a pokey little flat above a disused betting shop. It’s hardly controversial to state that property prices have pushed people further and further out of cities.) If petrol prices go up, those people who have to drive will still have to drive, and therefore spend more of their money on petrol. For those on low incomes, this is clearly regressive and unjust.

As to how affordable it would be to lower petrol taxes and improve public transport, well, I honestly don’t know. But the usual lefty solutions of steeper taxes on high incomes, scrapping Trident, the Robin Hood Tax (http://robinhoodtax.org.uk/) and so on could probably get us quite far.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the twin issues of peak oil and climate change. I absolutely agree that we’re far too addicted to cars as a society (I thought I spent half the article making that clear). My point is that if you jack up the price of petrol (and/or let it rise in line with oil prices) before you provide decent alternatives to road travel, then one of the major effects is going to be to make a lot of poor people a lot poorer, for the reasons I outlined. And that, to me, seems grossly unfair.

#7 
Written By Owen on April 12th, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

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