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.

 

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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