I don’t find it a great shock that the EU is having to sue the British goverment over our air quality. We have afterall wished the ends but we have not by a long stretch wished the means. We remain wedded to the internal combustion engine, a crap piece of 19th century “technology” that is well past its sell by date yet is still capable of killing more than a million people a year across the globe on an annual basis. Our attempts in the UK at creating the kind of cycling culture seen in parts of the continent have been rudimentary at best and public transport though in some significant respects has improved still fails to tempt people out of the air conditioned private shells of their cars.

We also need to do more to invest in renewable energy and micro power generation but I have this feeling that the political response is lagging behind the scale of the environmental change to such an extent that Plan B will be inevitable in the not to distant future. This is not a problem unique to the UK but across all societies that have gotten themselves out of patronising TV documentaries about exploring the lives of the funny little people who live in forests. 

In the future people will look back at our time and wonder at the primitiveness of our car culture in much the same way that people today view the feudalism of the middle ages. The internal combustion engine will be a museum piece rather than an everyday appliance and computers will be driving whichever clean technology we will be driven around in. As it’s going to be computer controlled the speeds will be able to be much greater. Faster, safer, cleaner will be the shape of our future transport system but how long it takes to arrive is entirely up to us although in fifty years they’ll think we were really backward back in the o’l naughties.

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Luke Akehurst scores a bullseye with his article on energy targets. Ok he is somewhat more keen on nuclear than I am (they don’t call him Luke the Nuke for nothing) but his overall analysis of the energy situation we are in is spot on.

Not good at all Mr Hutton. Getting caught trying to bin Labour’s commitment to increasing renewable energy is bad policy, bad politics and really if you look at why they don’t want to fulfil the commitment we have already made just really, really feeble.

Perhaps he has forgotten the Prime Minister saying that it was a “moral duty” to tackle climate change. Yes there may be costs involved but there are also very substantial costs to inaction as detailed in the Stern Report.

Apparently there are also “severe practical difficulties”  in achieving the target. Considering that we have all the technology we need available now. Considering we are in international comparison a well off country and we can achieve 6% of the UK’s energy supply from renewable sources from one project, the Severn barrage, “severe practical difficulties” actually means we can’t be bothered to try and that is simply way beyond the lowest form of pathetic.

In 1940 when Great Britain stood alone against Nazi tyranny in Europe that their might have been “severe practical difficulties” in tackling Hitler but that didn’t mean we shouldn’t have bothered nor that the task was beyond us. I thought we were at our best when at our boldest.

This is also really really stupid politics. The kind of pig headed unreality that Mrs Thatcher had when she persisted in thinking “Umm yes the Poll Tax, the voters’ll love that”. Perhaps we want to say to the Guardian readers that left us for the Lib Dems at the last election “Don’t worry we can do without Manchester Withington, Bristol West, Cambridge, Cardiff Central, Hornsey and Wood Green, Leeds North West and why not take Norwich South, Islington South and Finsbury  and Newcastle Central with you this time as well. After all we can afford to lose plenty of seats this time”

That is not to say only guardian readers are interested in the environment because that is simply not true. So we have a really positive policy on the environment which is a lot easier to sell to the electorate than road pricing and what do we do. Try and bin it. Genius. The environment that is an issue of increasing importance to the electorate, not to mention of some importance to life on this planet so I think we have a duty to put more effort into tackling climate change than civil service work to rule.  The sooner we should take out energy from BERR responsibilities and put it in DEFRA the better. Clearly the former just can’t be bothered and that is simply not forgivable.

The shift in stance is due to be discussed at full cabinet next week so take any opportunity to beat random cabinet ministers about the head with a wet fish until they see sense.

Road to nowhere

24 September, 2007

The Department of Transport needs a major sort out if we‘re going to keep Britain moving.

The Department of Transport’s response to the changing transport and environmental needs of the nation make the turning circle of a supertanker look sprightly. There is an institutional unwillingness in the department over many years to embrace radical solutions to Britain‘s transport needs. Alternatives are met with the haughty distain that flat earthers once handed out to heretics. Labour came to power ambivalent to road building especially with the conservatives experience of road protesters but now has a road building programme costing billion after billion despite a remarkable lack of evidence of its effectiveness at reducing congestion. Yes Minister may be off air but Sir Humphrey is alive and well in the Department of Transport.

There is also failure to see transport connected with other policy agendas. Meeting Britain’s environmental commitments seems to have passed the Department of Transport by. According to DEFRA transport is the only sector where emissions of greenhouse gases are set to rise between 2000 and 2020. The only thing that gets recycled at the department of transport is the policies of road building and airport expansion.Similarly cycling and walking have a huge role to play in tackling obesity as well as transport. Not that you would know about that from the departments spending priorities which prizes major infrastructure projects over inexpensive alternatives like safe cycle routes which not only reduce congestion but also have immense health and environmental benefits.  

So what should be done? The Highways Agency, a redoubt of immense profligacy, should be abolished. No more road eye wateringly expensive widening schemes at £1000 per inch like the M6. Instead a Highways Safety and Maintenance Agency should be responsible for the upkeep of the present roads network but crucially take away the institutional incentive to ever greater road building.On road pricing what we need is not piecemeal one off solutions like the congestion charge but a national system locally controlled by councils who have the specific knowledge of their areas. If it works for London then the rest of the country should be able to benefit as well. Sure the people who signed the anti road pricing petition on the Downing Street website aren’t going to like it but their not going to like ever increasing congestion, delay and illness inducing pollution either. This government set up and spends £10 million per year running Cycling England. This should be welcomed but it would only buy 250 meters of a fourth lane on the M6. Holland has a cycling culture that plays a large part in explaining why they have half the rate of obesity that the British do. It’s not expensive either especially when the burden on the NHS is taken into account and we should shamelessly emulate them.Post Hatfield the railways have had a successful few years with both passenger numbers and safety up. Overcrowding, a problem of success rather than failure, remains particularly at peak times. Ruth Kelly’s recent statement to the Commons setting out the Rail White Paper had much to commend it not least an extra 1300 carriages and some significant station capacity developments but it was a no to high speed rail or electrification. If continental Europe can have a large and growing high speed rail network, if China and Japan can invest in it as well why can’t the country that invented the railway in the first place not get the significant environmental and economic benefits of high speed rail other than on Eurostar?

When New Labour came to power it set out to be radical and bold but when it comes to buses it has been New Labour’s bete noire Ken Livingstone who has in London greatly improved bus usage against an unfavourable national picture. London buses should be used as a model for the rest of the country and the Oystercard scheme made national.

Domestic air travel on a small island like ours and private flights are an ecological absurdity and ought to be very heavily penalised by the Chancellor. Government is able to regulate the numbers of domestic flights, it should also be willing. After all the world will not end if people can’t fly from London to Manchester every week but it may do if everyone does.

We need a new covenant between people and government on transport. It should cost more to take environmentally inferior forms of transport such as the private car or domestic flights. In return we will dramatically improve the rail network with high speed lines, metro systems will become a common feature in our towns and cities, high quality bus services will be plentiful and our cycling and walking facilities will make even the Dutch green with envy. We have the ideas and resources to reduce congestion, protect the environment and tackle obesity all we need now is the political courage.