Hamish McRae: Let's stop paying for the politicians' taxis

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Indy Lifestyle Online

We may live in a democracy, but there is a strange disjunction between what people demonstrate they want in the ways they spend their money, and the choices that politicians make on their behalf.

We may live in a democracy, but there is a strange disjunction between what people demonstrate they want in the ways they spend their money, and the choices that politicians make on their behalf. People like cars; politicians don't.

We buy a lot of new cars. It looks as though this year could be another record year for car sales in Britain. Last year 2,579,050 cars were registered, the all-time record, and by the end of September this year sales at 2,079,956 were up on last year. The growth does seem to have eased off a bit since the summer, so we may end the year a touch down. But sales are still huge. Per head of population, we buy more new cars than any other large European economy.

You can catch a feeling for this exuberant attitude to cars in the clutch of new product ideas that are being rolled out - the folding hard-top, beefy American V8s squeezed into European-sized cars, a new version of the most successful sports car of all time, the Mazda MX5. Prices are coming down, quality is going up, value has never been better.

But this is not welcome news in town halls across the land. In London, Ken Livingstone is seeking to extend the congestion charge westward despite a large majority of residents opposing the move. Other local authorities are having to face down angry residents for the Stalinist way in which parking restrictions are being administered.

You can see why: privatise the service, create lots of incentives to clamp as many cars as possible and suddenly the council has a new source of revenue. The law-abiding can pick their way around by being disciplined about parking, but at the cost of introducing greater anxiety into people's lives.

Outside London, some local authorities create traffic schemes designed to exclude people who are not local and don't know what they can and can't do at various times of the day. Some of these go under the rubric of "traffic calming" - doublespeak because far from calming people in cars, they make them cross. Do you feel calmer every time you go over a speed bump?

To say this is not to argue, in the style of Mr Toad, for the primacy of vehicles over people. There are great environmental benefits to getting cars as far as possible out of city centres, segregating cyclists from both cars and walkers, and creating "greenways" for people to walk in pleasant conditions. That is not at issue.

Nor is safety at issue. Anything that makes it easier and safer to get around must be welcomed. The core of the problem, I think, is the extent to which politicians, national and local, become segregated from the rest of us because other people drive them around.

The neat example, reported in this paper last week, was the way in which Bob Kiley, the London transport supremo, does not use the tube to go to work but takes a taxi instead. His office says it is because he has papers to take home. I happen to know him slightly and he is a lovely man. But his is not the life of yer average Londoner.

And that, surely, is the prime social objection to the anti-car politicans. They increase privilege. People who can afford taxis or can charge them up to the taxpayer or company are perfectly happy with efforts to restrict cars. Most politicians come into that category. Only when they lose office do they have to confront the problems the rest of us face. But once they have lost office they are unable to influence policy.

My solution: make all politicians pay for their own transport, like the rest of us, with the most modest of allowances for the odd bus fare. Then they might rediscover both the frustrations of unnecessary speed bumps and the delights of driving a nice car.

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