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Keith Hawes' Web Log

Date: 26 February 2007   |   Author: Keith Hawes

Keith Hawes

26 February 2007: State of the nation

I returned from holiday this week to the latest motoring debate on road charging.

I have to say that on balance I am a supporter of this initiative, but with some important provisos. I will come on to these.

Firstly, road charging can fairly apportion costs to individual users. For example, those living in rural areas who rely heavily on their vehicles can be dealt with much differently versus those who use their cars on the half mile trip to school in our already congested cities. In other words scaling can be applied depending upon the need, importance and type of journey.

I also believe the 'satellite' tracking proposed to monitor the charging process will have many other spin off benefits.

This technology, which is already being used by insurance companies operating 'pay for usage' policies could certainly ensure that every vehicle on the road was taxed, insured and MoT'd. It is also feasible for manufacturers to monitor vehicles, spot problems and fix them 'on the move', thereby avoiding a visit to a dealer or a breakdown. Of course this will not prevent consequences of mechanical faults, but the use of electronic adjustments in modern car servicing (as in F1) would mean that repairs via telematics is not far off.

Clearly the big issue is infringement of civil rights - 'Big Brother'.

My view is that provided this can be largely overcome the majority of us, particularly fleet drivers should be confident our cars are well maintained, safe and are legal.

However, road charging is only equitable if these charges are applied fairly i.e. the revenue generated by the motorist is put back into the road infrastructure and not just a 'top up' tax on what is already a very big cash generator for central and local government.

Which brings me on to my main point (at last). I'd like to add to what Paul Barker said in the BusinessCar Office blog on 19 February.

After having driven back at the weekend along 700 miles of French autoroutes, we came across no traffic jams and no road works. Within two miles of leaving Folkestone on the M20 out came the bollards for over a mile. I wouldn't mind if it then resulted in a smooth quiet ride from then on. The rest of the M20/M25 was more like a concrete runway inter dispersed with the odd few yards of tarmac. There must have been at lease five different surfaces on different lanes within less than a mile.

The tyre noise and bumps evoked throughout the journey made a mockery of the investment manufacturers make in developing high quality ride characteristics in their vehicles. Our Dacia Logan built for Eastern Europe is probably more at home on UK roads. Just recently both my wife's and son's cars suffered destroyed tyres due to pot holes in our local area. Despite taking pictures and writing to the local council so far nothing!

I have noticed that driving from my local town, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire to our office in Hertfordshire (two of the more wealthy areas of the UK with high council tax costs) the roads are an absolute disgrace. I have really only just noticed this phenomenon. I wonder if it is only common to this area? Whether the local authority is trying to protect their budgets or the Royal Armoured Corps are testing tanks in High Wycombe I do not know, but one thing is for sure before any charging is even considered I would expect that the roads are worth charging for!

Interestingly - just as I finished this blog - the headline in our local paper this weekend raises this very subject - time to start a campaign perhaps?

12 February 2007: 4x4 market crashes due to lack of snow in the alps - BusinessCar 2010

As we climb effortlessly toward our alpine destination, my whole family cocooned in one of the safest cars in the world and the incredible views visible through our panoramic roof, I am prompted to consider EC moves to set CO2 limits within Europe.

One radio debate last week definitely raised my hackles: A Friends of the Earth protagonist was naively furious in condemning the automotive manufacturers for lack of action over the past years and stating that it was their responsibility to pay. He had scant regard (no surprises there then!) for the effects on two million jobs across Europe and the financial stability of some already struggling companies.

The reality is that the industry has been investing billions of Euros and can already supply many cars which have less than 120g/km CO2 output - the problem is that many people do not wish to buy them!

Furthermore, it is a difficult decision for any company to produce products, particularly hybrids, when customers are unwilling to pay and economic price.

In my opinion, there are many other stakeholders who must start and effort.

Firstly the consumers, user-choosers or company car drivers need to change their attitudes. One thing I have noticed driving along the French autoroutes is that 90% of all 4x4s have UK registrations. The UK fleet and business market has finally succumbed to the 'Burberry effect'. Policy based on contract hire rentals has opened up the premium market to employees who could have only dreamed of driving such cars 10 years ago. Some of the manufacturers have aided this trend by pushing their products through every channel. How long will it take for this to erode their image? I don't know, but it is true that many company car drivers are far more interested in brand, image and status rather than CO2 output.

Can we blame them? Not entirely. It is the policy setters who should perhaps take more responsibility. One major company I know plants trees every time their executives fly across the Atlantic. On the other hand they offer the bigger and most environmentally unfriendly cars to attract the best staff!

Perhaps all major companies should consider seriously the environmental impact of their policies and amend them accordingly.

Then there's the Government.

Always a target but justifiably so in this instance. What real effort have them made to prompt serious change? If they really wanted to move things forward, we would see meaningful BIK incentives for low CO2 output products, significantly reduced duty on greener fuels and tax penalties on highly polluting cars (perhaps then the market for these cars would find the right level).

Anything vaguely imaginative would be welcome!

It's not fair to put the onus on an industry already under massive financial and competitive pressure. After all, we are already investing billions in R&D to meet strict environmental targets, not just for CO2 emissions, but for also for recycling and 'end-of-life' commitments.

I haven't even mentioned the oil companies whose fuel it is anyway and who are making indecent profits!

At this point excuse me while I turn my mind back to my skiing holiday while European snow still exists; I wonder if my Grandchildren will ever have the chance to ski so close to home?