River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Village Soapbox

July 2005

Ron gets back on his Soap Box and reviews a wide range of topics that are keeping him awake

Road Pricing

The proposal by the government to combat future congestion by continually monitoring every car by means of satellites, in order to charge for the use of roads, adjusting the charge according to the time of day and type of road, is almost the stuff of science fiction. The justification is based on the argument that roads are already congested and that there will be even more traffic in the future, this may well be a false premise, practically everyone that wants a car has one and there is a limit to the amount of time that people can actually spend in their cars.

If the proposed technology did work it would be a further infringement of our liberty and take us another step towards the horror of George Orwell's 1984, the whereabouts of everyone's car at all times would be known to the individuals operating the system and to the authorities, including the police. I said if the technology works! What are the chances of that bearing in mind the evidence of the Air Traffic Control system, the failure of the CSA computer system, the difficulties with the NHS GP booking system, the time taken trying to create a police data base of registered guns (and they still haven't done it), and the time it took DVLA to computerise their records to help them catch tax dodgers. How much will the proposed system cost? Who knows, but you can be sure it will be measured in billions. The operating costs of sending bills monthly to 25 million car owners and chasing after non-payers will be phenomenal. Will they spend billions on the system and then find out that it is unworkable?

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State, claimed that the system could reduce congestion by 40%, he claimed that the system was a realistic opportunity of achieving a situation where people could get around the country and would know how long their journey would take. A prize, he said, worth striving for. How will it relieve congestion? Presumably it will be by forcing the less well off to seek out alternative routes on minor roads so that their journeys will take much longer and be more dangerous (motorways are the safest roads). Alternatively the less well off will be driving at less popular times, perhaps at night when tiredness is an additional risk. No! The ones who will enjoy clearer roads and motorways at the time that they wish to use them will be the well off, the business executives and government ministers, the rest of us, it seems, can go hang. It will provide convenience for some at the expense of cost and inconvenience for the rest.

We already have a situation where people who can seek alternative routes at alternative times do so in order to avoid congestion. At least when relying on congestion to deter people from using popular routes at popular times we have an egalitarian situation, government ministers and the wealthy have to mix it with the rest of us. Rather than spend billions on a questionable and invasive technology why not spend it on improving the roads, more lanes on motorways, more flyovers and underpasses to remove some of those congested junctions with traffic lights or roundabouts. I am not opposed to extending the principle of building new toll roads but I do object to the idea of charging for use of the existing roads, especially roads where, like most of those in this area, there is very little problem with congestion, why should we be forced to pay a charge designed to deter us from using our cars on these roads?

It is claimed that the new system will not necessarily cost us more because the tax will be removed from petrol but, at the road prices suggested, it would cost £260 for a one way trip from London to Exeter at peak times whereas the fuel tax on a run like that would currently amount to about £25 for a medium size car. What the proposed system will do is to provide the government with a simple way of pricing people out of their cars altogether. We should oppose the whole idea.

More on Greenhouse Gases

I pointed out, in a recent Soapbox, that the UK contribution to global CO2 production from human activity is of the order of 2% and that whatever we do in this country will have very little effect on the global situation. It is reported that the Chinese are proposing to build 600 new coal fired power stations which will make our contribution even less significant. What I failed to mention is that man made contribution in total is only a few percentage points of the total generation of CO2, more than 95% is produced by naturally occurring processes. In that sense the contribution towards total global CO2 in the UK is roughly 0.01%. So why all the fuss?

The problem, of course, is that there has always been large amounts of CO2 produced naturally in the world by a variety of natural phenomena, but this has been almost completely absorbed by plant growth and the seas, thereby maintaining a carbon balance. Over the last two or three centuries there has been a steady increase in the production of CO2 by the burning of fossil fuels so that there has been more produced than has been absorbed and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 0.028% in the 1700s to 0.037% in 2001. Whether or not this increase in these very low concentrations is sufficient to generate a significant warming of the Earth is open to question but most appear to believe that it is, although I, like most Americans, remain sceptical. Without doubt carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas but it is not the only one by any means, neither is it the only one to have increased in concentration.

The terrestrial uptake of CO2 is not well understood, there appears to be enormous variation from year to year, which is difficult to explain. Without doubt deforestation is a major problem, not only does it reduce terrestrial absorption but it is estimated to contribute to the production of CO2 to an amount equal to 25% of that which is being generated from burning fossil fuels.

Perhaps present indications of global warming are due to the increase in CO2 concentrations, perhaps they are a consequence of a combination of factors, perhaps they are exaggerated, but whatever the cause, there is very little that we as a nation acting individually can do. I have seen suggestions in the national press recently that we should reintroduce the idea of steadily increasing fuel prices or that we should each be allocated an annual carbon dioxide allocation. There is no justification for taking such economically damaging measures unilaterally, when those measures will have no measurable effect on the global situation. Similarly there is no justification for spoiling attractive countryside with wind turbines if the objective is to reduce global warming since that too will have no effect. When the Americans start to make serious moves to reduce their CO 2 emissions then we should support them by joining in although it will remain true that our efforts would have a negligible effect.

Free Trade

This is a popular cry from our Government and has been from all recent UK governments. Sounds good too. Surely free trade is only right and proper? It would be, of course, if everything else was equal but western nations are subsidising their farmers and encouraging them through a system of subsidies to produce more food than they need. This surplus is then sold off to poor countries at a price that their own farmers cannot match so that they can no longer make a living from selling their produce. The result is that millions of people now face an uncertain future as they lose their means to earn a living.

In Mozambique the government have been able to legislate to control the price of imported sugar and set it at a level that has enabled their farmers to compete. This has saved the livelihood of many. But Mozambique is an exception. Other poor countries are prevented from helping vulnerable industries and farmers. Rich countries and international institutions that lend money to poor counties force governments to accept free-trade policies. Free trade means that governments may not interfere in the market place, and all traders - from rich and poor countries alike - must face each other in open competition. This gives the poorest no chance, especially when they are competing with produce generated through domestic subsidies. What the poor countries need is 'trade justice' not 'free trade'.

Christian Aid is campaigning for trade justice.

Farm Subsidies

In the recent past the EU sought to subsidise its farmers by providing a guaranteed market for their produce. This encouraged ever increasing development to generate ever increasing yields per hectare. The concept of set-aside was introduced in order to reduce the size of the surplus mountains, but this was defeated to some extent by the further improvements in yield so that production was maintained despite the reduced acreage in use.

The latest scheme to combat over production, whilst trying to ensure that farmers are kept in the style to which they have been accustomed and whilst trying to prevent some areas from going to wrack and ruin, appears to be to pay them for doing nothing other than keeping their farms tidy. It seems that they might be paid up to £100/acre for doing not much more than getting up in the morning. This not only applies to the small farmer but also to the big landowners like Prince Charles and the Duke of Westminster with their thousands of acres.

Ron Watts

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