Queens Death, New Transport Ministers and Oxford Traffic Filters

The sad death of Queen Elizabeth reminds me of my own mother’s death at the age of 100. They looked similar in later life. Both managed to die in their own home which is the best place from which to leave. Will Charles III make a good king? We will have to wait and see but his name is not propitious bearing in mind the track record of the previous two. As I am not a monarchist I will say no more.

It was interesting to see an open coal fire in use in the photographs of Liz Truss with the Queen. Balmoral does not have central heating apparently while Buckingham Palace does have a CHP plant. But the bill to run the later was about half a million pounds per annum before the projected price increases. So King Charles might welcome Truss’s announcement to cap the maximum price of gas and electricity.

This is a cap on prices, not on overall cost so people with big houses with large gas consumption will still pay more. But at least it will replace the OFGEM price cap which was an irrational policy. Fracking is also being permitted to boost local gas production.

Truss did not give in to calls for this largess to be funded through a windfall tax. She said this would undermine the national interest by discouraging the very investment we need to secure home-grown energy supplies. You can’t tax your way to growth she said. So it will be funded by more Government debt in essence.

Is this wise? I believe it is the lesser of evils as it will help to bring inflation under control which is essential to keep the economy healthy and avoid a severe recession. These decisions by Truss and her new cabinet are positive in my view. But she is still committed to net zero by 2050 which is simply an unrealistic and unachievable objective.

With a new Prime Minister we are getting a new Cabinet. Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps has gone, thank god, to be replaced by Anne-Marie Trevelyan. She might be pro road building as in 2007 she campaigned to dual the A1 in the North of England. Liz Truss also supports road building – in a recent speech she said “We will get spades in the ground to make sure people are not facing unaffordable energy bills and we will also make sure, that we are building hospitals, schools, roads, and broadband”.

Other new Ministers in the Department for Transport are Kevin Foster MP and Lucy Frazer MP.

This is all positive news. Other good news is that Andrew Gilligan, the transport advisor to Boris Johnson and a keen promoter of cycling, has gone.

But the attack on private cars continues. Oxfordshire County Council is proposing to restrict private cars from the City Centre altogether but permitting taxis, PHVs, LGVs, HGVs etc. Local residents will be given permits to use on 100 days per year. This draconian measure is subject to a public consultation – see https://letstalk.oxfordshire.gov.uk/traffic-filters-2022 . Please respond to it before the 3rd October although this is a very biased survey with way too many questions. I added these comments however: “This survey is totally biased with preconceived answers to the questions imposed to get the answers you are looking for. A total disgrace!”.

I hope the new Transport Ministers will put a stop to such schemes which are inherently illogical.

Roger Lawson

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Truss Victory – But Do We Trust Her to Deliver?

Liz Truss has won the election for Conservative Party Leader and therefore will be our next Prime Minister. She won by the expected large majority although she would not have been my personal choice. Lacks charisma. Her acceptance speech was a lacklustre bunch of pedantic soundbites.

She has promised to cut taxes and tackle the energy crisis. But how is she going to control energy prices? It’s easy to impose price controls or subsidise consumption but who is going to pay for it and where is the money coming from are the key questions. She has promised quick answers to those questions but do we trust her to deliver?

Having a surname that is a homophone of trust should have helped her political career but now she faces real problems in the UK economy and social unrest over the cost of living. This will not be helped by the latest news that Russia has turned off the Nord Stream gas pipeline and has no intention of reopening it while sanctions persist. This will drive gas prices even higher.

How will her policies affect drivers? She did hint at some positive changes in her election campaign such as reviewing motorway speed limits and halting Smart Motorways. But I doubt there will be major changes while the commitment to Net Zero remains and she focusses on the energy crisis and cost of living.

But one positive aspect for Londoners is that she does live in west Greenwich and was actually a Greenwich councillor for four years before she became an MP. She might understand the problems faced by those who live in the London suburbs in recent years. She needs to fire Grant Shapps and bring Sadiq Khan to heel though to really have a positive impact.

Roger Lawson

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TfL Board Meeting and Finances

TfL Board Meeting and Finances

gold colored coins near calculator

There was a Transport for London (TfL) Board Meeting on the 9th of August to discuss negotiations with the Government on finance. Such meetings should be public but in fact almost all the meeting was closed to the public; even the Government representative who has a seat on the board was excluded.

But there is an interesting board paper that spells out the dire financial position of the organisation – see link below. In summary they need £900m in Government subsidies to stay afloat in the current financial year, i.e. to offset the shortfall in revenue from the pandemic.

The paper says this: “The 2022/23 TfL Budget is based on a ‘managed decline’ scenario. This involved significant service reductions, deteriorating asset condition and no new enhancement schemes. This not only would mean that we will fail to make progress on critical priorities such as safety, decarbonisation and air quality, but it would trap London’s transport network in a vicious circle of deteriorating services and declining demand. Avoiding managed decline is critical to supporting the London economic recovery, and therefore the national economic recovery, following the pandemic”.

In essence they want to continue spending instead of cutting their cloth to meet the new circumstances. They need £1.2 billion just to balance the budget in the current financial year and even more for “longer-term capital funding to avoid the managed decline scenario”.

Looking at TfL as a business (which is what it is) this is surely pure hogwash. Businesses that do not reduce their expenditure to match income end up going bust. As will TfL unless they change their approach.

It’s interesting to look at who is on the board of TfL. It’s full of academics, trade unionists and politicians, not business people. And it’s chaired by Sadiq Khan. This is one of the key problems. Until TfL is taken out of the control of the Mayor and the board is replaced by people with business experience of running transport organisations, nothing will change. They will continue to rely on Government (i.e. taxpayer) hand-outs rather than taking the tough decisions necessary.

Roger Lawson

Board Paper: https://board.tfl.gov.uk/documents/s18400/board-20220809-item03-Update%20on%20TfL%20Funding.pdf

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Telegraph Article on Our Right to Drive Freely

There was a very good article by David Frost on the right to drive freely published by the Daily Telegraph today (29/7/2022). He talks about a world where private cars are banned. He suggests Governments haven’t quite done that but there are people who want to ban cars in some large cities and suggests one day some feeble Red-Green mayor somewhere in Europe will surely give in to it. Meanwhile our leaders are doing everything short of it.

To quote from the article: “But this is not just about technology. It is about human flourishing. The bicycle first allowed people to move from where they lived. The car hugely expanded it. The van and delivery lorry got goods all around the country and the car gave people access to this huge choice. People could go out whatever the weather. They could buy enough food for a week and free up time for things they preferred doing. The disabled, the old, or just those seeking a day out somewhere different, all could get to where they needed to go”; and “There is obviously no substitute for the car outside urban areas. But, even in big cities, public transport will never do everything we need. It runs where the planners want it and when the transport unions allow it. Not everyone wants to travel to the city centre or along a tube line. Only the private car, under autonomous control, can take you where you want to go. Too many of our modern rulers would rather you didn’t.”

He concludes with the comment “Cars are about freedom – going where you want and no one saying you can’t”. That well summarises what the Freedom for Drivers Foundation stands for.

To read the article go here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/07/29/must-never-surrender-right-drive-freely/

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Grant Shapps for Prime Minister?

Transport Minister Grant Shapps has announced his candidacy for the position of Prime Minister and with two others yesterday the field is getting quite crowded.

But Shapps has a very poor record as Transport Minister. Among his negative contributions has been the promotion of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) to tackle the Covid epidemic – a totally misconceived policy and implemented without local consultations; support for HS2 – an enormous white elephant; a rewrite of the Highway Code which makes some people more equal than others on the road; a £2 billion investment in cycling and walking to promote “active travel” and “behaviour change” and he keeps bailing out Transport for London (TfL) allowing Sadiq Khan to continue to run an uneconomic service instead of reforming it. His response to the national rail strikes has also been to line up for a fight with the unions while committing £1 billion to “modernisation” of the railways; basically throwing more money at an uneconomic and outdated transport technology.

Meanwhile the road transport network gets ever more congested and drivers pay ever more in taxes and road charges such as in CAZ and ULEZ schemes.

I certainly would not support Shapps for Prime Minister. But what of the other candidates? A number wish to cut taxes. A laudable policy but to be able to do that without increasing public borrowing means a reduction in public expenditure. None seem to be promising that (for example Shapps wants to spend considerably more on defence).

We would all like a cut in the price of diesel/petrol which might help to stimulate the economy as high prices impact the delivery of goods and services. But most of the increase of late has come from the market price of oil not from taxes (Fuel Duty rates have actually been reduced recently).

Rishi Sunak seems to be one of the few candidates who is wisely not promising hand-outs to the electorate if he gets the job.

But no doubt we will learn more about the other candidates over the next few weeks. As in previous Conservative Party elections, it may be a case of who avoids the most gaffs and who is least disliked by MPs that wins the day. Boris Johnson only got the job because he seemed likely to break the deadlock over Brexit but there should surely be no rush to appoint a replacement.

Roger Lawson

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Comments on the Energy Security Bill and the Next Prime Minister

Yesterday the Government introduced the Energy Security Bill into Parliament. It is good to see that the Government continues to function after the recent political upheavals, but would it not be good to get back to some normality as opposed to the recent dramas?

The new Bill aims to:

–         Boost Britain’s energy independence and security.

–         Attract private investment, reindustrialise our economy and create jobs through new clean technologies, as well as protect consumers.

–         Introduce new powers to help prevent disruption to fuel supply because of industrial action, malicious protests and on grounds of national security (comment: surely to be welcomed).

See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/plans-to-bolster-uk-energy-security-set-to-become-law  for details.

It includes new powers which will enable the extension of the energy price cap beyond 2023, shielding millions of customers across the country from being charged “unfair” prices as they call it. Or to put it another way – to protect consumers from the real world of market prices and hence making it uneconomic for some companies to operate in this sector. This is surely not a very “conservative” approach!  There are better ways to subsidise household fuel bills.

The clear objective is to reduce reliance on imported oil and gas and encourage offshore wind farms, nuclear power generation and other infrastructure that we need to achieve carbon reductions although the growth of nuclear is still at a snail’s pace. It is certainly worth reading the document on the Bill’s contents and the associated British Energy Security Strategy mentioned in it.

But will any new Government back-track on the net zero commitment which has made for some very expensive (the public do not know how expensive) policies as regards motor transport.

Let us hope that any new Prime Minister does not get the job by promising more tax cuts. It’s clear that Government expenditure is rising by commitments in the Energy Security Bill for example and in many other areas when what is really needed is reducing the amount of our wealth that is spent by the Government. In the last couple of years we have had a quasi-socialist economy with more willingness to interfere in the economy by the Government. But civil servants consistently back the wrong horses.

What the country really needs is a period of stability under a competent leader who everyone can support.

Roger Lawson

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Census Results – A Problem the Government is Ignoring

Yesterday (28/6/2022) the Office of National Statistics released the first results from the 2021 Census in the UK. The population of England and Wales rose to 59.6 million which is an increase of 6.3% since the last census 10 years ago.

This substantial change which directly affects our quality of life was barely covered in the national media. More people mean more stress on housing provision, more vehicles on our roads and a bigger demand for health services (particularly as the population has aged – there are more older people and they are living longer). Some of the age increase can be blamed on baby boomers growing old.

The population increase has been concentrated in London and the South-East but older people have tended to move out of London being replaced by young immigrants (not just from overseas but from within the UK). The census data might also have been distorted as people tended to move out of central London boroughs to the country during the pandemic.

England now has the highest population density of all major European countries.

One major impact of more population is degradation of the environment – more air pollution and more waste. Here’s a good quote from Sir David Attenborough that is very relevant: “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people”.

What is the Government doing to try and tackle this problem?  In essence very little apart from rather feebly trying to restrict immigration. The birth rate is forecast to fall, but there is as yet no sign of any reduction in the population growth. A growing population might mean a healthy economy but the shortage of housing, particularly in the South-East, has been a major factor in political unrest while the elderly are facing problems in getting medical treatment as the NHS is over-stretched to cope.

The Government is being distracted by many other issues at present in a reactive fashion. Such problems as food and energy security would not be a problem if the UK population was reduced.

Likewise the growth of population, particularly in London and the South-East, has put great stress on the road network. Population growth has zoomed ahead of road capacity which has barely changed in the last few years. This is a recipe for more traffic congestion.

The Government surely needs to be less reactive to short-term problems and look at the longer-term issue of excessive population growth.

Roger Lawson

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Train Strikes – What’s It All About?

The national rail strikes this week have been incredibly inconvenient for those who rely on trains to get to work or for essential trips such as visits to hospitals. In London the strike has also extended to the London Underground. Commuters have been badly affected although the ability to work from home (WFH) has softened the blow and reduced the impact.

Why are RMT union members striking? It’s partly that they want a pay increase to offset the impact of inflation. But it’s also about whether rail management have the power to decide on jobs and working practices. For example, they wish to block any forced redundancies such as the closing of ticket offices. In London they are even intervening over the outsourcing of the contract for underground cleaning by TfL.

It should be a business decision as to whether ticket offices should be closed. There are now generally alternative ways to buy tickets although a few people might be inconvenienced. But if it saves money then management need to decide on a commercial basis whether to close offices.

National Rail Chief executive Andrew Haines said: “We cannot expect to take more than our fair share of public funds, and so we must modernise our industry to put it on a sound financial footing for the future. Failure to modernise will only lead to industry decline and more job losses in the long run.”

In reality the national railways have lost money for the last 100 years and have been massively subsidised by the Government (i.e. by you and me from our taxes). It’s exactly the same in London. With reduced passengers on all services due to the Covid epidemic and more WFH all rail services need to cut their costs to get revenue and costs more into balance.

The rail system is an enormously labour-intensive operation to maintain the track and signalling. Railways are also enormously expensive to build – just look at the cost of HS2 or Crossrail (about £100 billion and £19 billion respectively) – both projects are late and over budget.

The big problem is that railways use old technology and are operated using archaic working practices. The rail unions are trying to protect their pay, their jobs and working practices which is simply unjustifiable. They need to accept that passengers have alternatives and if they are unwilling to use the railways as much as they used to do then management has to retrench.

The unions need to face up to reality or they will go the way of the dinosaurs (like the coal miners did when faced with the Government being unwilling to subsidise perpetual losses).

But the core of the problem is a confrontational approach from both sides. There should be a consensus about how to run the railways profitably for the benefit of both the owners and the workers.

Roger Lawson

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Queen’s Speech

The Queen’s Speech in Parliament yesterday (10/05/2022) outlined the Government’s legislative programme. One item of interest for road users was the inclusion of a Public Order Bill to give the police new powers to tackle disruptive demonstrations.

It is likely to mean that “locking on” or gluing oneself to objects will become a specific criminal offence, as will Interfering with key national infrastructure. Police may gain greater powers to stop and search, in a bid to prevent disruptive protests. “Protest Asbos,” or “serious disruption prevention orders” will also become part of the Public Order Bill – imposing conditions on repeat offenders. Penalties for obstructive behaviour will increase also to deter those who repeatedly offend and who frequently take little notice of the current fines imposed.

These proposals brought the predictable complaints from groups such as Extinction Rebellion.

Comment: This legislation is long overdue. Peaceful protest to bring issues to the attention of the public should be protected. But behaviour that disrupts people’s lives, incurs large costs in transport delays and policing needs should not be accepted.

Let us hope that this legislation gets through Parliament quickly and is not diluted by obstructive behaviour in the House of Lords.

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Local Elections Postmortem

Now that most of the local council election results are in, it’s worth reviewing the results. Particularly in London where many local issues such as the impact of LTNs should have had an impact.

Overall the Conservatives lost hundreds of council seats in the country in what was seen as a complaint about the cost of living, the dislike of Boris Johnson as a result of “partygate” and other national issues. This was a particular problem in London. But there were very mixed results when the detail is examined.

In London Labour won Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet from the Conservatives but they lost Harrow to the Conservatives. Also Labour lost the elected Mayor role in Tower Hamlets to Lutfur Rahman who had previously been banned from standing after an Election Court found him guilty of illegal and corrupt practices in 2015. LTNs were a significant issue in Tower Hamlets.

Croydon has a new Conservative directly elected Mayor in Jason Perry who won by a narrow majority after a recount. Let us hope that he introduces some reforms after the previous regime bankrupted the council. Postscript: The overall result in terms of other councillors was that Labour lost overall control of the Council with the Conservatives having the largest number of councillors.

In Bromley there was a minor upset in Chislehurst ward where newly formed party Chislehurst Matters won all three seats after running a very effective campaign using social media and focussing on a few local issues. But Conservatives still retained overall control of the council with 36 seats won. Former council leader Colin Smith was re-elected so presumably he will remain in post which is surely to be welcomed as Bromley has generally been a well-managed borough both financially and otherwise in recent years.

In Lewisham the Labour Party retained control – it will remain a one-party state. Mayor Damien Egan actually increased his vote slightly to 58% of all votes cast, although that still equates to only 20.3% of the electorate on a low turnout of 35%. In Lee Green, the ward where there was a lot of controversy over the LTN, Labour retained all three seats but with reduced voting percentages. Comment: there is clearly a lot of political apathy in Lewisham and campaigns by opposing parties seemed to be lacklustre.

In Lambeth, Labour retained control although the LibDems gained a few seats. The Conservatives were nowhere.  

In Islington, Labour won 45 of 48 seats to retain control with the Green Party winning the remaining three.

Labour retained control of Greenwich on a 34% turnout.

In Southwark Labour retained control and the opposition to the LTN in Dulwich seemed to have little impact although in that ward the Conservatives and LibDems effectively split the opposition vote.  

In Enfield where there was substantial controversy over LTNs the Conservatives reduced Labour’s overall majority on the council from 29 to 13.

In summary the dislike of LTNs had some impact on the results in some boroughs but the national image of the Conservatives did not help with Labour talking mainly about issues such as the economy (which local councillors have no influence over) and ignoring local issues.

The outcome also depended to a large extent on the campaigning effectiveness and expenditure in the local wards, with Chislehurst Matters showing how revolutions could overturn results even when there were no clear manifesto or policy commitments. Personal engagement can make a big difference.

Politics is also a long game and turning around the preferences of people to vote for individual candidates or platforms rather than a party as they should do is not easy.  

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