Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Dylan Sharpe

GET UPDATES FROM Dylan Sharpe
 

Fear and Loathing of Fuel Prices

Posted: 15/11/11 11:41

If you watch or listen to any of today's coverage of the backbench debate on fuel prices, you may be forgiven for thinking that the likely outcomes of the vote are purely political ones.

Certainly, there are a number of imponderables for the government: will they or won't they debate the more forceful e-petition language? Will they or won't they employ the whips? And will this be another EU referendum-style 'difficult' moment for Cameron and his Cabinet as they are accused of being out of step with their party?

All of which gets the Westminster village very hot under the collar and brings a worthwhile debate out into the open. But behind the headlines and political intrigue there are wider issues at stake.

The price of fuel, like tax in general, is a no-win topic for governments. Environmental issues, clogged roads and the scarcity of oil give Whitehall a sellable reason for making the car more difficult to afford. But the car is now seen as something equivalent to a human right. And when the cost of public transport in Britain is rising at about the same rate as the increase in the number of car-owners in places like China and India, it becomes much harder for successive administrations to justify hiking up fuel duty.

Later today, when backbench MPs fighting for their hard-pressed constituents go toe-to-toe with greenies and deficit-hawks over the price of fuel, it is likely that the car will be pilloried, and anecdotal evidence of parents driving half-a-mile to take their kids to school will be raised as evidence that car-use has gone too far in this country.

However, if not a human right, in the countryside owning a car is something akin to a human necessity. Paying for fuel alone can absorb over a fifth of the income of a poor rural household, and with countryside communities having to travel up to 43% more than urban areas to access essential services, rural people are having to make some very difficult choices when it comes to what they spend their money on.

Countryside Alliance research in mid-March found that it cost a rural person making an average journey into work £1.16 more every week in petrol than it did at the beginning of the year. Fuel prices at the forecourt have continued to rise and in the week beginning 7 November, people in rural areas had to pay £1.34 more every week in petrol than they did at the beginning of the year.

Shockingly, since 1st January 2011, the cost of the weekly commute for a rural worker has increased by just over 7%.

This unprecedented rise has undoubtedly placed a disproportionate burden on rural people, who also suffer from having access to fewer transport alternatives. The Transport Select Committee's Bus services after Spending Review report, published in August 2011, noted that changes to funding had most affected rural bus services and were damaging the ability of the old, young and disabled to participate in employment, education or voluntary work and to access vital services such as healthcare and retail facilities.

Finally, as research from the TaxPayers' Alliance released last week demonstrated, countryside areas also suffer most from excessive fuel taxes - which amount to around £64 per person in urban areas like Camden, whereas in rural areas like Maldon they were a massive £566 per person.

For these reasons the Countryside Alliance is supporting FairFuelUK and Robert Halfon in their current campaign, and I urge you to sign their e-petition to help keep the momentum going. Like them, we would like to see the 4 pence inflation-linked fuel duty rise announced in the March 2011 Budget scrapped, and the creation of a price stabilisation mechanism that accounts for fluctuations in the pump price.

However hot a potato the issue of fuel duty becomes, for the sake of the rural economy (among many others), today's debate must not be the end of the discussion.

 

Follow Dylan Sharpe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@dylsharpe