Wednesday, 4 April 2012


It’s a question often asked of environmentalists who live out in the sticks: how do you reconcile the need to cut down on car dependency with the need for cars in rural areas?

The question is borne out of a failure to view taxing transport in a sensible way, a failure that’s been highlighted by the recent spate of panic buying of petrol and diesel with a possible tanker drivers’ strike on the horizon.

Let’s consider the environmental impact of cars for a minute. A car that drives one mile in the country makes exactly the same contribution to global warming as the same car driving one mile in a big city. But that same car’s emissions of polluting gases (as opposed to climate-changing emissions) do much more damage in the city than in the country. This is because the impact is on human health, and there are a lot more people per unit area of ground in cities than there are in rural areas, so more people are affected by the pollution.

This goes hand-in-hand with another crucial point: that putting all your eggs into the basket of raising fuel taxes isn’t good for the environment or the economy. Fuel tax is a blunt instrument that penalises car drivers who have no alternative the same way as those who have three bus routes and a train or metro station within walking distance of their home.

This has been amply illustrated by the discrepancy in queues for filling stations in cities and rural areas. The queues were much bigger in the sticks than in the towns. Why? Because in the sticks an empty tank means a loss of mobility, while in the towns an empty tank means you have to use public transport. Some urban dwellers may not want to use public transport, but at least it’s there. In many rural villages of East Sussex, you’re lucky if you get a two-hourly bus service, and lucky to get any bus at all on Sundays.

This is why local and national governments must bite the bullet and seize a greater role for congestion charging in our large cities. It’s about making those who have the most plentiful alternatives to the car pay the most for using their car. The congestion charging schemes in London and Stockholm have been a great success in reducing car traffic and generating revenue to improve public transport. It won’t work everywhere because you need a certain density of population to achieve it, but the principle is right and in conurbations it has been proven to work.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against fuel tax. Even in areas where there is really no alternative to the car, the price of motoring must be high enough to make people use their cars in a smart way, for example by planning their day so they do two or three things with one car trip rather than make two or three trips.

But if we’re to take the view as a society – as we surely must in an economic downturn – that we can’t provide enough public transport to serve the needs of all our rural villages, then we have to make motoring more expensive for those who have access to alternatives. It not only makes sense – it’s also equitable, as it works towards a system where everyone pays a reasonable price for the transport that best suits where they live.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


I blame Wimbledon, myself. I was at the press conference nearly 10 years ago when they announced they were putting a roof on Centre Court. ‘It’ll never rain again in June,’ I said, as did every other wizened and cynical tennis hack.

And it barely has rained during late June and early July since the roof became usable in 2009. Wimbledon has had two days in three years on which it has used the roof. The problem is that it’s raining less and less in the rainy season too, which is why we have a problem. A big problem. When the South East is declared a drought zone in February, you know it’s a big problem.

In our culture, a knee-jerk reaction to a problem is to find someone to blame. Of course we can blame global warming for the lack of rain, but that doesn’t help us. What we have to do is look at likely rainfall, look at likely demand for water, and make sure the two tally. A bit like an income and expenditure balance sheet – we can’t spend more than we earn, only in this case the currency is water rather than money.

In my role as a district councillor, I have had dealings with South East Water, and it has led me to a number of conclusions and realisations. I don’t want to get too harsh on SE Water, as what applies to them applies to other water companies, but I get the strong impression that our water management is not in good hands.

For a start, the water companies have far too cavalier an approach to water leakage. SE Water felt it was ‘acceptable’ to have a staggering 16 per cent of its water lost through leakage. This is actually rationalised in their accounting. All water companies do it – they have a formula for costs, according to which they work out at what point it’s economically more efficient to let water seep through cracks in pipes than to fix the cracks.

I don’t doubt the need for the formula, and at times you have to let a bit of water seep away rather than spend masses of money fixing small cracks. But 16 per cent? – that’s a sixth of the water supply! Something has gone wrong with the economics of water management when you get that high.

It would be wrong to blame it all on the water companies, but I also believe the former utilities have done too little to encourage us to save water. When I first worked with Nick Clegg back in 2007 on environmental issues, he said something very clear: ‘We need to get the point where doing the right thing is also the easiest thing.’ Given the paramount need to cut down on our water consumption, we have to make water saving easy and attractive.

The biggest thing we should do is to get everyone onto water meters. We all know that if you leave a light on when you don’t need it, you’re throwing money away. So why should water be any different? Yet large numbers of households are still on fixed charges, so once you’ve paid, you can use as much as you like for no extra cost. That has to be wrong. (Of course we have to ensure that poorer multi-member households don’t get penalised, but that is no reason not to have metering.)

Once we have metering, water saving aids like water butts and other rainwater capture technology become financially more attractive. It’s a virtuous circle, and fortunately the water companies are – belatedly – becoming wise to the possibilities.

We also need to rethink our attitude as a society to living. There is a current move towards lots of smaller living units, including one-bedroom flats. This means an increase in water consumption per person, whether through things like using more water per person to wash up or things like not being able to share the bath water with a family member. Can we as a society afford the environmental cost of fewer and fewer people per bathroom and kitchen? Such questions are seldom asked.

My biggest concern is that the people managing water resources in this country are private monopolies. I’m not dogmatically in favour of nationalised or privatised industries – there are pros and cons to both. But a private monopoly is the worst of all worlds, and that’s what our water companies are.

If they’re private, there should be competition, and we as customers should have the right to choose who supplies our water. When that happens, incentives to reduce leakage from pipes and consumption will flow as freely as the rain used to fall over Wimbledon before the roof was built.