View from City Road: Driving in straight lines

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The Independent Online
Time was when Royal Commissions were what harassed Prime Ministers resorted to in desperation when they needed to take the heat out of a controversial issue.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which this week published a report urging the Government to change the nation's driving habits through sustained real increases in petrol excise duty, has somehow managed to turn itself into a standing or permanent commission.

This unfettered licence to engage in think-goodery allows it to continue spewing out at regular intervals worthy but intellectually flawed reports that are liable to capture headlines for a day or two but which in the end produce little or no discernible result - or so any self-respecting citizen with the interests of his fellow citizens must fervently hope.

This week's report on transport and the environment, which appears to have been produced under licence from the ecological movement, demonstrates, if nothing else, that there is still a home in the never never land of royal commissions for simplistic linear forecasting methods.

By extrapolating, in linear fashion, historic trends in transport use, and focusing, to the exclusion of all other economic factors, on the environmental cost of car ownership and use, the Royal Commission is able to work itself into an unrestrained lather about the threat that continued use of the motor car will pose to our nation's 'sustainable development'.

If the Government were to act on the report, it will have profound economic consequences for a whole raft of British industries - not just car manufacturers and airlines, but also supermarkets and all other businesses that depend for their livelihood on the mobility of their customers and employees. That is before you even consider the broader impact on the quality of people's lives that the greater use of motor cars has brought about. (The commission itself notes how people in Eastern Europe, freed from communist control, have seized on the motor car not just as a symbol - but as the practical expression - of what personal freedom means).

The problem of how to reconcile greater car use with the unacceptable consequences on the environment deserves a much more sophisticated analysis than the one provided by the Royal Commission. Doubtless the Government will find its report a useful prop when justifying further (sensible) increases in excise duty on petrol, but beyond that this offering is one that seems likely to be another seven-day wonder.

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