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.

 

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.