politics transport

A progress check on sustainable transport in Britain

This year I’ve been writing regularly about sustainable transport, and government budgets are a good opportunity to look at what we’re actually investing in. They offer something of a progress report. Last week Britain’s chancellor Philip Hammond announced his autumn budget, and there were a handful of measures that relate to sustainable transport.

First, most of the transport headlines went to driverless cars, which got a specific mention in the speech. The government clearly wants to get ahead of the curve here, and has promised to bring in the necessary laws to test autonomous vehicles on the country’s roads. They want them to be electric too, so there’s funding for charging points and support for those buying plug-in vehicles. New rules will make sure that new homes have the necessary cables for car charging. There’s no guarantee that self-driving cars will be better for the environment, but the support for electric is welcome.

Air pollution was also on the agenda. Since air pollution tends to be a localised problem, there aren’t any specific national measures to announce, except that a small levy on diesel and company cars will provide funding for local action. The budget comes with a consultation, and that’s where the interesting detail lies. It will look into “measures making it easier for individuals to undertake a shift in the transport that they use. Some people may be able to switch to cleaner travel options such as buses, car clubs, walking or bikes.” Indirectly then, and in response to air pollution, we may see more funds available for more active transport.

The government also had announcements on rail transport, including the glaringly absent east-west connections between Oxford and Cambridge. There’s some money for new trains and stations in specific locations.

Air passenger duty is an interesting one. It’s been frozen for economy class, with the shortfall paid for by increasing the levy on premium class tickets and private jets. That’s something we looked at in a recent post on first class air travel.

Among the downsides are that fuel duty has been frozen again. This is a crowd-pleasing announcement that we’ve come to accept as standard now. Even with oil prices low, the chancellor tends to make a show of freezing it at every budget, scoring cheap brownie points from the tabloids and the motorists lobby.  What this means is that we’re subsidising electric vehicles without dis-incentivising petrol vehicles. If we priced in the emissions and air pollution of petrol cars at the same time as supporting electric, the transition would happen much quicker.

This is not a trivial issue: Hammond boasted in his speech that “fuel duty has now been frozen for the longest period in 40 years, at a total cost to the Exchequer of £46 billion since 2010.” Imagine what else we could have done with that £46 billion. We could have fully funded a national charging network with a slice of that, or completed the rail electrification schemes that the government declared too expensive at £2.8 billion and scrapped earlier this year.

Fuel duty revenues will fall as electric vehicles gain market share, so it’s worth giving some thought to the issue. How can we use fuel levies to fund the transition to sustainable transport, while also weaning the government off fossil fuel revenues?

What can we conclude from these measures? I’d say that sustainable transport is on the agenda, but that there’s no real vision for it. Things that can fit within the status quo are welcome – such as swapping petrol cars for petrol. But there’s nothing here that challenges car culture or aims to provide something better. Without those more radical measures, we’re unlikely to see transport emissions falling in line with Britain’s climate targets.


  1. Nice summary. Yes the need for more radical action has been clear for many years. Unfortunately the argument has never been made persuasively enough to wean people away from attachment to the past and perceived present benefit.

  2. Car sales are still very large. If Government does nothing, including not building new roads, the road system will continue to clog up and get even more unpleasant and slow. That disincentivises driving. I enjoy driving on empty roads but usually thoroughly dislike it these days. They could further disincentivise driving by scrapping yellow lines and letting people park anywhere (some do anyway); that further slows traffic!

  3. “a cost to the treasury of 48bn” means a subsidy to the road transport industry of 48bn. Funny how it isn’t referred to in that way except when referring to public transport.

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