JANET STREET-PORTER: Demonising motorists is driving me mad

JANET STREET-PORTER: Demonising motorists is driving me mad: Getting around is hard enough in Boris’s Britain with cycle lanes clogging up roads and a broken-down rail system – now it costs a fortune just to put fuel in our tanks

Once, smokers were considered social pariahs – now, it’s motorists. With fuel prices soaring to a 17-year high this week, it now costs over £100 to fill my second-hand diesel car.

Motoring organisations reckon that soon prices of 200p a litre will be ‘normal’ for petrol, a result of a weak pound and the continued rise in the price of crude oil since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But there’s something more sinister at work here. Sure, the Chancellor gave us a paltry 5p cut in fuel duty in the budget, but that has proved pretty ineffective. Every time motorists buy a litre of fuel, they are paying between 45% (diesel) and 46% (petrol) of the cost in duties and taxes straight back to the government.

The people profiting from soaring fuel prices and motorists’ misery, are not fuel retailers – whose margins are so slim they often make less than 4 pence profit per litre – but the money grabbers in the Treasury.

If the government really wanted to ‘help’ motorists, as Michael Gove claimed on TV today, surely they should lower the VAT on petrol and diesel? At the moment VAT is charged on top of fuel duty, so we’re paying tax on tax!

The impact of increased fuel prices might be lost on the cycling lobby dominating the chattering classes in London, but in the countryside and towns around the UK, the impact is profound.

Unfortunately, we have a Prime Minister who is so rabidly wedded to putting cycling above all other forms of transport, he authorised the construction of miles of cycle lanes which have decimated traffic flow in London and caused an increase in pollution. Local councils have introduced low traffic neighbourhoods, blocking roads off with fancy planters and designer shrubs, in favour of cycle routes which shunt idling traffic on to poorer areas and high streets.

A cycle lane on Park Lane in London which was widened to accommodate more cyclists in 2020

Motoring organisations reckon that soon prices of 200p a litre will be ‘normal’ for petrol, writes Janet Street-Porter

Cycling is great if you’re fit, healthy and have the time and energy to use this as your preferred mode of transport. In the countryside, getting to work by bike is not an easy option. If you have a small family, if you have any kind of disability, if you have stiff joints or just a fear of being mown down- then cycling is not for you (or me).

Why should motorists be demonised because they need to use a car, or – God forbid – actually ENJOY driving a car? And don’t talk about pollution, because buying an electric car is not an option for 90% of the country who cannot afford a hybrid costing £40,000, and anyway there aren’t enough charging points in rural areas.

Telling motorists to get back onto public transport is a non-starter, when rail fares between our cities cost as much as a cheap ticket to New York or a week in Malaga. I’m a huge fan of rail travel – when it’s working and affordable. But I’m a pensioner with a senior Railcard (well worth the outlay), not to mention a Freedom Pass in London.

For ordinary people not eligible for student or family discounts, rail travel is exorbitant, and the impact of Covid is still being seen with regular cancellations due to staff shortages on busy intercity routes.

And if ticket prices were not enough to deter rail users, militant rail unions are planning three days of strikes (June 21, 23 and 25) which will affect major sporting events, Glastonbury, and concerts by Elton John and the Rolling Stones in London’s Hyde Park, not to mention ordinary workers trying to earn a living.

This week, Londoners had to endure a day of tube strikes, with a very limited service. It took me three trains in each direction (and a lot of escalators) to make a simple journey to and from the West End. Queues for buses were horrendous.

The government (and the Mayor of London) seem very reluctant to confront TFL workers, who regularly bring the Capital to a standstill. Will they have the bottle to take on the national rail unions before a week of chaos wrecks the work and leisure plans of millions?

They can’t expect people to return to the office, if getting there is a nightmare.

Since Covid, the national railways have been struggling to survive, with the government splashing out the equivalent of £600 per household to keep them afloat. Working from home has continued far longer than anyone anticipated, and passenger numbers have only returned to 75% of pre-lockdown levels. 

Militant rail unions are planning three days of strikes (June 21, 23 and 25) which will affect major sporting events, Glastonbury, and concerts by Elton John and the Rolling Stones in London’s Hyde Park

It comes after Londoners had to endure a day of tube strikes, with a very limited service

The railways seem stuck in the past, with competing power groups and overpaid managers running tracks, lines, tickets and enquiries. The whole system desperately needs a streamlined structure that’s fit for purpose, and the government wants to set up a new body which will determine fares and run all aspects of the network including the infrastructure. Unfortunately, that body- Great British Railways (GBR)- remains a wish rather than a reality.

In the meantime, the cost of living has risen by 9%, heating bills and food prices have increased, adding more pressure to the family budget.

As the cost of filling the family car has risen, people are choosing to stay at home rather than opt for family outings and day trips at weekends. During half-term holiday week, petrol prices went up by almost 6p a litre and motoring orgnisations noted that there were far less cars on the road than usual during the Jubilee celebrations.

Janet Street-Porter

While less cars might be good for the environment, it’s bad news for the leisure industry, bad news for attractions, pubs and restaurants outside cities and town centres. There will be a long-term impact of high fuel prices on a struggling leisure and entertainment sector this summer unless someone in Whitehall comes up with a plan.

As for those who need their cars and vans to get to work, the latest fuel rises are a catastrophe. The NHS only reimburses some workers 20p a mile for fuel after the first 3,500 miles, but prices have risen to around 22p. Community nurses routinely travel over 10,000 miles a year, so the impact of the latest prices is horrendous and will prove yet another barrier to staff recruitment.

One in four van drivers say they are turning down some jobs because the cost of driving to carry out the work is too high. One survey found that van drivers were paying an average of almost £2500 a year more in fuel, and 53% of them had been forced to increase prices to cover costs.

Currently, our airports are in meltdown, railways are planning to grind to a halt, and we can’t afford to fill our cars.

Would the best plan be to return to voluntary lockdown and stay in our bunkers until someone in the Department of Transport or the Treasury can come up with a plan to get us out of this mess? Our ‘world-class country’ (according to Boris) is stuck in the sidings for the foreseeable future unless the Fat Controller can magic up a solution.

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