With his changes to Vehicle Excise Duty, George Osborne has just told drivers that they own the roads

"You don't even pay the Congestion Charge!" Image: Getty.

There was a time when all British taxpayers paid for our roads: when cyclists could revel in the opportunity to remind drivers they don’t own the roads. That time ended 24 hours ago, when George Osborne announced that the roads do, in fact, belong to drivers.

In yesterday’s Budget, the Chancellor announced that, in a break with Treasury tradition, road taxes were to be hypothecated for road building. “From the end of this decade,” he said, “every single penny raised in Vehicle Excise Duty will be paid into a Road Fund to pay for the sustained investment our roads so badly need.”

Creating this entitlement for car owners ignores the real problem with road taxes that they are set to plummet. It’s also economically illiterate and deeply unfair to other road users, especially cyclists, who already put up with the sense of entitlement from drivers quite enough.

The problem Osborne decided to duck, once again, is that the revenue generated by motorists is rapidly declining. Partly this is the result of ever more efficient vehicles (hybrids and electric cars really keep the Treasury up at night). It’s also partly because fuel duty has not kept pace with inflation: “fuel freezes” are popular enough to make them irresistible to politicians, as yesterday proved yet again.

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The slow decline in revenues from motoring taxes. Image: RAC.

The romantic idea of a Road Fund was first used in 1920 as a way to charge drivers for construction. But it lacks economic credibility today. Ring-fencing is almost always a bad idea. As well as creating a headache for Treasury officials inundated with similar requests from other revenue raising departments, it sends mixed messages about why we tax drivers in the first place.

VED was never intended as a charge to use the roads. It was a sin tax that aimed, badly, to reduce the damage drivers cause to our health and the environment. In reality, VED is a relatively small fixed cost that has barely any influence on the choice of car purchased, and zero impact on how much you drive. The amount it raises for the Chancellor has no relationship to the cost of maintaining our roads.

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The decline in the duty on road taxes. Image: RAC

But most worrying is the precedent Mr Osborne has set by re-framing VED as a literal “road tax”. He has effectively decided the roads belong to those with a car.


They don’t, of course. Roads exist to enable people to get from place to place, and buses and bikes make much more efficient use of them (moving the most people in the least space). And the fact they cost more to build and maintain than VED can ever hope to raise shows this decision to be little more than cynical politics.

At best, bringing back a road tax will discourage more people to leave their cars behind, further clogging up the roads and making cycling less appealing. It does nothing to tackle congestion which costs the economy billions each year.

At worst it put cyclists at further risk of injury from entitled drivers who can now yell with abandon that they do indeed pay for the roads. Thatcher dreamed of her “great car economy”: George Osborne is no different.

To the Conservatives cars are a mark of independence, individuality and success. Cyclists and passengers on buses, the brave and the poor, are relegated to second place. The social good that roads provide risks being forever lost to a consumer mentality.

David Brown was a transport adviser to the Labour party, and previously worked at the Department for Transport.

 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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