18 March 1998

Michael Johnson, Automobile Association

Just another environmental smokescreen

Many of the reasons that the Chancellor has put forward for a crackdown on cars are said to be for environmental concerns. Now the truth of the matter is that motorists have been well aware of the need for cleaner cars for some time now. The amount of the toxic emissions from tail pipes has decreased by 25% since 1992, and so we are clearly not looking at environmental concerns here. What he is wanting to do is to reduce congestion. He is basically wanting to reduce this by taxation, and the motorist already pays an enormous amount of taxation into the Treasury. We count for 27 billion a year. That is I think 1 for every 10 that actually goes to the Treasury. In return we don't get very much. Unfortunately our roads are congested, they are falling apart, bridges are in a state of disrepair. What the AA is advocating is for the Government to be honest and say that if it wants to tackle the motorist, say that you are doing it because you know that motorists are a soft touch. Be honest with us.

Reduction of Road Tax on small vehicles

We are certainly welcoming this development. It is good news from the Chancellor. He was of course proposing to reduce vehicle excise duty by 50 on smaller and cleaner cars. Our problem is that we don't quite know what that means. And the Department of Transport doesn't quite know what a smaller and cleaner car is yet. We should hear later in the year exactly what that qualification is, but we await with interest what that will be. It does however give the right signals to motorists, that they should be using smaller and cleaner cars that are better for the environment. But motorists have already taken a lead in this, and certainly they use cleaner fuels. Unleaded fuel is now the choice of fuel for by far the majority of motorists, so they have taken a lead on this. But we were pleased to see that move from the Chancellor, yes.

Support for electric/hydrogen powered cars

We do support these developments. Already there are a lot of experimental cars out there, and certainly newer, leaner-burning engines that are being produced at the moment are reducing the amount of toxic emissions and making the car go an awful lot further for a lower amount of fuel. So it's not that the green issues haven't been addressed, so any moves that are made in this direction we would certainly welcome.

We would not, however, agree with clobbering fossil fuel at the pump. Although it sounds like the Automobile Association is for motoring at any cost, we are certainly not for that. The problem we have is that if you look at the amount of taxation there is at the pump, so for example you fill your car with petrol worth 20, 16 of that – 80% – is taxation, and goes direct to the Treasury. In America it is something like 5%, which is a minuscule amount. The problem that we have is that the Treasury has increased the taxation and clobbered the motorist, and they keep doing it and they keep increasing it year on year on year, and it doesn't actually do anything. Our surveys have shown unfortunately that people are not being taxed out of their cars. Petrol is not a luxury item; for most people they have to use their cars to get to work, to take the children to school, and just for basic mobility. The problem is it's all very well to spout fine words like using public transport, but public transport just doesn't fulfil the aspirations of so many people. It's not reliable, it's not cheap, and it's not convenient, and until you provide better public transport, you are not going to get people out of their cars and they certainly will not be taxed out of their cars.

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