Wednesday, September 05, 2012

U-turn please, Mr McLoughlin

When the first Coalition Transport Secretary got the job he declared: “We will end the war on motorists.”

That was Philip Hammond. He stayed in the job 17 months – something of a record for a transport minister – before becoming Defence Secretary and being replaced by Justine Greening.
She lasted less than a year and she was so busy worrying about Heathrow Airport, the West Coast Main Line and the high-speed train from London to Birmingham she may not even have noticed the war is about to break out again.
Perhaps the new man in the job, Patrick McLoughlin, will do something to prevent it becoming too bloody. But don’t hold your breath.
Motorists will be under the cosh once more when the Government hands over new powers to local councils outside London to impose fines for a range of petty misdemeanours.
In 2004, London councils won the right to fine motorists for offences like driving in a bus lane or encroaching on a yellow box.
And what fun they have had ever since. Drivers in London coughed up £50 million in fines last year alone as 800,000 of them fell foul of the council transport snoops. Please note, that doesn’t include the £300 million they make in parking fines.
Now greedy councils up and down the country think they can boost their tax-raising activities by whacking new £60 fines on unsuspecting drivers.
It’s a nice little earner, especially when some mistakes are induced by the confusion caused by the councils themselves when they tinker with the road system.

In two-miles of Birmingham road, for instance, there are three stretches of bus lane. One is out of bounds to cars all day, another until 9am, the third to 10am.
Confused? You will be when you fall foul of the council CCTV and get a nasty little letter in the post demanding money with menaces.
It is true some drivers – not you and me, obviously – are a menace to other road-users and we’d all be happier if they were priced off the roads.
But I wouldn’t trust the average local council to discriminate between really abominable, inconsiderate, selfish so-and-sos and the rest of us.
This is just a money-making exercise, another way of raising taxes. Already the terrible 20 councils are talking to companies selling number recognition cameras.
The Big Brother State has got your number and it knows where you live.
This will all be justified in the name of road safety but in reality the unblinking eye of the CCTV camera will track your every manoeuvre and minor mistake.
Mr Hammond may have declared a truce in the Government’s war on motorists but that hasn’t stopped councils from pursuing the fight with all the resources at their disposal.
One of the obvious results is that we are wary of driving in and out of town or city centres. If we need to go shopping, it’s cheaper and wiser to try somewhere out of town.
So, on the one hand, councils wring their hands about the decline in traditional shopping areas while, on the other, councils hasten their demise by making life miserable for motorists.
Why bother to drive into a town centre when you can buy what you want out of town in a shopping area where they don’t charge you for parking – let alone fine you a fortune for over-staying your welcome?
And why run the risk of falling foul of a bus lane or a yellow-box junction when you know the Big Brother is itching to land you with a £60 shopping tax?
Giving councils more power would be a disaster. It will just drive out economic activity – shoppers, workers, businesses, anyone who could steer clear of these predators would do so.
Of course, one excuse for all this is that the councils want to force us out of our cars and onto public transport.
They claim it’s greener and we’ve all got to do our bit to reverse global warming (you know, the sort of climate change which – they keep warning us – will lead to long, hot, dry summers when the only thing that will grown in the garden is the occasional cactus).
They refuse to accept that, for many people, public transport is simply impractical and, for many more, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
This time the Government will be waging a proxy war through local councils. Strangely, 12 of the 20 local authorities on the list of those demanding new powers are run by the Labour Party: Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Plymouth, Reading, Salford, Sheffield, Southampton and Oxford.

Of the others, Lib-Dems run Bristol, Cambridge, Portsmouth and Bath and South East Somerset while the Greens run Brighton.
Only three Tory councils want to pursue this vendetta: Southend on Sea, Guildford and Canterbury.
Yet a Conservative-led Government is happy to encourage these money-grabbing authorities down the path of self-destruction.
It may seem reassuring that, in the West Midlands, only Birmingham seems to want these powers.
But be warned: The Department for Transport has written to all the other councils in Britain inviting them to leap on the bandwagon too.
I can’t help thinking this is a policy in urgent need of an immediate U-turn, even if it’s in violation of the Green Cross Code.

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