Geoff Hoon loves travel

 

Went to ministerial drinks last night. Totally new Department press team who asked me things like had I ever been there before. Sweet. Meeting Geoff Hoon for the first time was like a déjà vu. He was exactly like he is on TV: superficially charming but patronising and smug, a man who clearly had no compunction sending hundreds of British troops to their death for no good reason. And still in post!

 He did not give away much except that it is clear the Cabinet is split over the third runway at Heathrow – he said it was just split at the edges, but it is clear that it is split down the middle – except that he said something remarkably stupid: ‘travel is a good thing,’ he said, ’I am trying to persuade my Cabinet colleagues of this’.

 Well no, Geoff, travel is not per se a good thing. Of course getting around to see your grandma in Manchester or going walking in the Peak District is a positive experience, but much travel is a pain in the neck. Few people jump on the bus or get in their car in the morning for a struggle in traffic jams thinking, ‘wow what fun it is to travel’. If the government adopts planning and transport policies that, say, encourage people to live further away from their work, then the experience is entirely negative. Or is it really a ‘good thing’ if air fares are priced not to take account of environmental damage and stag parties travel to Estonia on Ryanair?

 I suppose the thing that the likes of Hoon has not yet learnt is the idea of sustainability. Sure, he mumbled something about the environment as he said his piece, but it is clear that he just said it because he felt he ought to. Surely, are we not beginning to learn the notion that unbridled travel is a negative, that even without considering issues of climate change and pollution, the sheer amount of infrastructure required to service it is making our towns and cities unbearable, and eating into our ever diminishing countryside. Hoon’s philosophy seems to show no awareness of that at all.

  • Quite apart from the environmental damage caused by stag parties flying to far off places, does anyone pause to consider the harm caused to the reputation of British people by sending these particular “ambassadors” in large numbers to unsuspecting locations ?

    The behaviour of British stag and hen parties is getting us a bad reputation overseas. I’ve not seen tourists from other countries behaving in the same way.

    It’s difficult to see what is such “a good thing” about travelling to another country simply to get drunk.

  • Dan

    Yeah – daft really – in reality the DfT ought really to have an objective ‘ways of trying to get people to travel less’ – pure and simple – so that the infrastructure can cope more easily. Hard to know why decision makers can’t see this – even if they would be frightened of saying it. MPs are not all the time insulated from the problems (after all on a congested road or a crowded train they are stuck in it when not at work in a Ministerial car of on a tax payer funded 1st class ticket) – they have families who will have to deal with it too. I think the problem in UK is that large numbers of people can’t see that what they think of as normal is in fact a shambles – and it could be so much better quite easily.

    It’s not leisure travel of course that is the main problem, it’s business / work travel (inc the commute) – but many people OPT for this – they choose where to live – so many people could opt to live closer to place of work – but they don’t want to make the sacrifice it requires (smaller house, less desirable neighbourhood etc) – I know not everyone can do this clearly as households will have different employers – but look at how many people have 2 earners & 2 cars and live near neither persons place of employment.

    I suppose a generation of relatively prosperous pensioners (who have driven all their lives and are not about to give it up) is also out there driving around a lot (despite the free travel they are offered for certain trips) – at all sorts of times of day. When I take to my car at ‘off peak’ times and hit the M-Way (which is rare) I’m always amazed a how many other people just seem to be driving around all the time – it’s like there is some sort of employment (or maybe govt sponsored) scheme that just engages people to ‘drive about witrh no purpose’ – I genuinly ask – where are these people going, and why do they want to waste so much time doing it?

    Car ownership is growing with all sectors of society too – many students live near where I do as it is close to a University – they all drive / have cars – and are rally bad offenders for the use of the car on the short local journey – this depresses me as a) you might expect young people to have more eco consciousness and b) it shows that car growth is high even amongst groups whose income in theory should be low and it be less affordable – clearly not so!

  • David

    Liked your description of our new Secretary of State; sums up exactly the impression I formed when I saw him pushing a trolley round a local supermarket!

    I think he does actually practice what he preaches though; there are at least two, possibly four, supermarkets nearer to his home than the one I saw him in, so he really does believe travel just for the sake of it is a good thing!

  • Nigel Frampton

    The trouble is that we live in something that is sometimes called the ‘great car economy’ – no, it’s not my idea of fun, either, but I suspect it’s a fact of life; and, as I’ve mentioned in other comments previously, politics does have to be practical, however unacceptable that practicality may be to some of us.

    The other point is that there are several powerful vested interest groups involved in the car industry, and, let’s face it, people don’t buy cars just to let them sit on the drive.

    Here in Germany, there is a tax allowance for commuters (the ‘Pendlerpauschale’) which entitles taxpayers to claim the cost of their travel to work at a specific rate per kilometre. Given that most people who travel long distances to work are probably better off, the working of this allowance is likely to be more beneficial to those people (i.e. the reverse of what a progressive taxation system should be doing) – and, of course, it’s not much deterrent to driving long distances (it is also paid for travel by public transport). The current government wanted to reduce the cost of this benefit, and changed the rule so that the allowance could only be claimed for travel in excess of 20 km – which I suppose probably made the benefit to the better off relatively greater – but that has recently been ruled out of order by the finance court, so now it will have to be paid for the whole journey again. It’s barmy, completely bonkers – and that in a country that supposedly takes pride in its green credentials! What price sustainability!

    However, OPEC have decided to cut oil production this week, so perhaps the cost of fuel for cars will start to go back up again, and maybe encourage people to think twice about using their cars, and perhaps encourage airlines to concentrate their loads in fewer, bigger planes. We can only hope.

  • RapidAssistant

    Quoting what Dan said (and I am not disagreeing with his point): “it’s business / work travel (inc the commute) – but many people OPT for this – they choose where to live – so many people could opt to live closer to place of work – but they don’t want to make the sacrifice it requires (smaller house, less desirable neighbourhood etc)”

    This is fine, but the problem with it is that with the property boom (which of course is becoming an ever-distant memory), housing that was within easy reach of a main line railway, a tube station or some other easy public transport link always attracted a price premium which was beyond the reach of many prospective buyers which forced them to less popular locations that were only accessible by road, or at the very least had to use a park and ride facility whenever it was available.

    It goes back to a point that I’ve made several times before – it’s all very well villifying motorists as some sort of enemy and battering them with taxes and congestion charges as some sort of “punishment”, but this is not the answer. It will only make them vote for the very governments which will forever keep on delaying and stalling on delivering the public transport improvements that will ultimately turn the situation around – and the recent events in Manchester are the proof of this. And what public transport improvements?? Bus Lanes? Traffic calming schemes? More traffic lights??

    This business of “Tax first and then maybe spend later” is never going to wash with the car driving fraternity…..they want to see the steel and concrete go in first – then they’ll make the switch.

  • Paul O

    RapidAssistant said,

    “This business of “Tax first and then maybe spend later” is never going to wash with the car driving fraternity…..they want to see the steel and concrete go in first – then they’ll make the switch.”

    Please do not delude yourself becuase once that steel and concrete has gone in they will sit in their cars and wait for others to make the switch so they can have the road to themselves. Ordinary People on ordinary incomes don’t invest vast amounts of money for a car then tax and insure it for it to sit on the driveway depreciating. Once you’ve paid out all that money ( usually 2nd biggest purchase after a house ) you use it becuase its cost you plenty and its a machine and generally machines go off if not used regularily. I’m not having a go at RapidAssistant here I’m simply making the point that getting people out of their cars is like platting sawdust even with a mandate to do so. No democratically elected UK Government will ever receive that mandate from the electorate, if anyone thinks things would be different under the Bicycling David Cameron they are kidding themselves, Democratically elected Governments in this country will look after the motorist as far as practically possible. At this stage in our history there is too much tax revenue to be lost, too many manufacturing and construction jobs to be lost, Too many votes to be lost. These big four issues still outweigh the environmental issues at this time in the Westminster Village.

    I’m not saying this is right, I use public transport, walk and cycle. I’m simply being realistic about the enormity of the challenges ahead and the inabilty of elected Governments who’s members usually have a debt to a wealthy sponsor ( Corporation ) of some kind and an eye on the ballot box to be able to make a decision that may be the right one to make.

    Wait…As comedian Jimmy Cricket would say, “There’s more!” Reading the Sunday papers it looks as if the Government is set to bail out Land Rover & Jaguar with vast amounts of cash so that there will be plenty of Gaz Guzzling Ministerial Limos & 4X4 Chelsea Tractors to burn serious rubber on the new roads when they are built. While this is a Jeremy Clarkson wet dream by any standards might it just be that people are not buying Jags and 4X4’s because with high oil prices, economic and environmental considerations stacking up against them there time has passed? If so there might just be a small light at the end of the tunnel. I see shortages of fuel ( Peak Oil ) pushing prices up plus an environmental crisis as the driver of any change if it comes, not the politicians.

  • Dan

    RapidAssistant – I agree with your point in some cases (I’m sure in the vast London housing market this is a problem – but interestingly it is a problem because people NEED to use public transport) – in many towns and regional cities this is not an issue of the same magnitude.

    For example I know quite a few people who work in higher education here – I have no doubt whatsoever they could live close to the university (I know their income roughly, and I know the local house prices) – but they don’t – simply because they want to live elsewhere – and they can drive in – as this is facilitated through loads of free employer provided parking, plus salaries high enough for them to all be 2 car owner households etc

    Another example – a guy I worked with in a public sector organisation had to leave his job because the employer moved location to a business park near a motorway – and he did not drive thus could not get there. No doubt the decision to move was fine by the bosses (who made it) who could all get their easily in cars – and this from a govt funded body that would no doubt tell you how they had all sorts of ‘inclusive employment practices designed to help socially excluded people’.

    Then I also fear that when you put the infrastructure in – motorists still will not move. Here in Nottingham public transport has genuinely been transformed over the last 10 – 15 years. We have 2 superb bus companies all running very modern fleets on hi frequency routes with good value fares. All these routes have hi tech info systems at modern stops with good quality shelters etc. A brand new tram system has been delivered with usage levels like the London underground in rush hour. A new railway line has been opened (Robin Hood line) – and the other week it started Sunday services too – it even serves Geoff Hoon’s constituency!

    All this has been delivered without ANY additional charge levy on motorists – so the infrastructure HAS gone in – just like motorists lobby say must happen – but does that lobby hold this up as a good example? do they say ‘well if you did what Nottinghamshire did we would support charging’ ? – do they heck! Instead they are opposing the long mooted plans to introduce a modest parking levy on larger employers which would fund more improvements – the first time car drivers will be asked to make an additional contribution!

    So whilst I agree with you Rapid about the background issues – but basically you can put the stuff in – and you won’t really stop the motorist driving. I tend to err more towards Paul O’s analysis. You either have to force people not to drive (which democratic govt’s won’t do) – or let them stew in their own jams, or wait for them to decide for themselves they can’t afford to drive any more – pretty sad really. And of course I fear if you consider this analysis re Jaguar Land Rover – it’s not that people are deciding not to buy them – it’s just that they can’t get credit to buy them so they are unaffordable – if and when that changes they will be buying again!

  • RapidAssistant

    Dan and Paul – I can see where you are going but my only fear with this is that how much pain can you inflict on the motorist?? I mean when fuel prices were sky high I didn’t really see that much change in traffic levels on the motorways – sure there were a large number that did make the change, but lets face it the number wasn’t earth shattering either – I’d argue that in a lot of cases this was because there was no bus or train that went near peoples’ place of work, or it was slow, didn’t take a direct route or was short on capacity, or infrequent. It suggests to me, that the financial pain needed to make people switch from driving needs to be a lot, lot higher than even a £2 litre of fuel, and the public transport solution has to be a lot more than the proverbial sticking plasters that successive Tory and Labour administrations have delivered.

    This compromise needs to be thrashed out before any progress can be made. You can’t obvously go back to the pre-Beeching days when the railway tried to serve every nook and cranny of the land, but there has to be some middle ground – I’m sure that there are a lot of closed lines out there that if put back in – based of course on how much “bang for the buck” they delivered would make a hell of a differece…that is of course if ministers can be persauded to look beyond the balance sheet and towards the wider social benefits – something that Beeching so infamously didn’t.

    But staying on this point we have been the masters of our own destiny by adopting the US model through the building out of town shopping centres and business parks; their location biased towards the proximity of a major road or motorway intersection than anything else. Planning policy also needs to be radically changed to prevent the further intrusion of development into greenbelt land that can only be realistically reached by road.

    On the JLR issue – the bailout of the banks was an inevitable price we had to pay in order to (try) to stablise the economy (time will tell if it has worked or not), I do object to the Jaguar-Land Rover aid – as a taxpayer I ask the (angry) question over why my money is being used to prop up a company that a) has a wealty Indian parent to begin with, and b) makes products that are mostly the preserve of the well-off.

    Governments need to put their money where their mouth is – we’re sick to the back teeth of feasibility studies, White Papers, and endless pie-in-the-sky schemes that never get off the ground – as others have said – its despicable that suddenly after years, indeed decades of the Treasury pleading poverty and giving us lectures on “good fiscal policy” that all of a sudden billions of pounds suddenly appear to bail out banks and now; foreign owned luxury car makers.

    Yet people are getting all sentimental that “we shouldn’t let historic British names like Jaguar and Land Rover” die…..whilst we let our train building industry (which led the world) quietly go to Johnny Foreigner and then closed down so much so that apart from Bombardier in Derby, it’s arguably on the road to becoming a cottage industry. No-one was demanding a multi-billion rescue package when Metro-Cammell (Alstom) or the former BREL works at York or Crewe were being wound up where they??? I rant on………

    Finishing on a festive note – I am glad that we can have this debate in such a professional, courteous manner. I’ve tried to make these points on my local provincial newspaper’s discussion board and it always seems to degenerate into a childish slanging match by cowards who love to hide behind the anonymity that the Web affords them.

    Thanks to Christian (and his website) for allowing us this opportunity. Merry Christmas to you all and best wishes for 2009.

    K.

  • Dan

    Rapid – just to say I think broadly speaking you are correct here – we’re not arguing against each other on these forums – as you say that is what is good about them – its takignt he issue forward via discussion (but you only have to see the theme on the class 40 tour to see how it can degenerate) – festive greetings indeed!

  • MickeyMouser

    The recent Manchester vote seems to have made people very pessimistic about people ever wanting to get out of cars. No doubt a few are hard to budge but anecdotally I get better impressions. My sister and her (slightly petrolhead) husband have gone from two to one car lately as her job moved to an office easily accessible by bus. For them the saving was an attractive benefit, but two other better off couples I know have both done something similar in the last year.

    The point being that when public transport became a good option (because of job moves rather than improvements sadly), then they were willing to use it.

    Sadly Geoff Hoon and the other twits will consider this bad news as demand for cars and fuel is reduced. If only there were some better way to record the fact that everyone actually feels better off as a result of this sort of thing.

  • Bob Battersby

    A lot of people sadly have a feel for their automobile. When the oil price recently went up to $150 a barrel, a lot of people were despairing as if the world was coming to an end. It’s only a tin can on wheels and a rather expensive and smelly one at that! MickeyMouser is right about the plutocrats’ lackeys in Government: They too were worrying about the drop in car use was having on fuel duty receipts.
    People WILL be better off if they start to look after their own finances like rich people do. They will realise the REAL costs of running a car are financially crippling (certainly when you’re doing this after tax and not as a business overhead). But that’s what the Goonvernment and the global plutocrats they serve don’t want. We need to stalemate our enemies and not be our own worst enemy by being emotionally attached to owning cars. Cars are big financial liabilties to us and ready cash flow for the Government and plutocrats.

  • Anoop

    Transport problems cannot be solved, in the long term, simply by trying to build improvements to our transport system. We need to go back to the root of the problem and consider the locations where we build our houses, shops, offices and factories.

    If the important buildings in a town are along a few main straight roads, they can easily be linked by a fast bus route. Similarly a linear arrangement of towns is easier to link by a railway or bus route than a haphazard network.

    Old towns were densely populated because people had limited means of transport for moving around within them (mainly walking). These towns have slow, narrow roads and little space for car parking. Newer developments often have fast wide roads with buildings set back by wide grass verges or landscaped areas. They have plenty of car parking and therefore a low density of buildings. This means that an excessive amount of land is used, and distances within the town are greater, which encourages people to use their cars.

    If businesses are given a free rein to choose their location without government interference, they may prefer cheaper land away from the town which can only be reached easily by car. The price paid for such land is artificially low, because it does not include the price for pollution and congestion caused by the increase in car use. In contrast, a business choosing an accessible central location will be penalised by the high land price, even if employees or clients can easily reach it by sustainable means.

    It is the government’s duty to enforce sensible town planning (e.g. by differential land taxes for housing or commercial development depending on proximity to public transport) so that in the long term, our transport requirements can be met as far as possible by walking, cycling and public transport. At the same time, the government should set much higher standards for the level of cycling and pedestrian provision – there should be a comprehensive network of off-road cycle routes (suitable for young children and less confident cyclists) as well as safety improvements for fast, experienced road cyclists (cycle lanes, advanced stop lines, mandatory blind spot safety mirrors for large vehicles). Zebra crossings should be installed at all common locations where pedestrians may want to cross the road (except where there the footfall is so large that it would cause severe delays to road traffic).

    Overall this will save money because people will have to travel shorter distances, the journeys they have to make will be more direct, and they will be able to use cheap modes of transport such as cycling and walking.

    There is also an argument for building new trams and railways now in order to create or protect jobs in the construction industry.

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