Few things impact on our lives more than the car. It is our friend, our refuge, almost our starship. So when Philip Hammond, the newly appointed coalition transport secretary, declared that ‘the war on motorists is over’ we all heaved a collective sigh of relief. Here, at last, was recognition of what the car meant to us.
For years we motorists had felt ourselves a beleaguered section of society: milked for all we were worth; told that we were anti-social for not using public transport; told we were a menace to life and limb; and told also that we were polluters of the planet. Never once did the-powers-that-be recognise what the car meant to the public and how we found them such a marvellous means of conveyance – and how we valued that it kept so many of us in work. So twenty months into this government, we are entitled to ask of the evidence that it intends to make good on its welcomed promise of a cessation of hostilities.
Motoring back from my Burns Night supper near Lincoln this weekend, I was struck by the number of newly installed average speed cameras: dozens and dozens of them. We were told that the whole matter of cameras and much else besides was going to be looked at, and that they were going to be confined to genuine accident blackspots – as was their original intention.
Nothing discredits a government more than broken promises. They do, after all, form the basis on which our elected politicians got their jobs in the first place, so it is little different from lying in a job interview.
Almost immediately on my arrival back in Plymouth I learned that Hush Puppy-booted Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, is to raise spot motoring fines by 66% to £100. What a kick in the teeth that represents. And what a duplicitous example of government two-timing its electors. What’s more, it demonstrates a total disregard for the financial pain people are suffering right now and only provides further evidence of how utterly out of touch with reality the political elite really are.
We deserve better than this. As I have said before in this blog, our motorists are among the most considerate in the world and our death rate reflects this fact. But here in Plymouth I continue to feel quiet fury at the way the transport authorities behave.
Take the Cattedown roundabout East End Development as an example. Long drawn-out and hugely over-budget, it has recently been completed. They have, however, built a superb slip road bypassing the Embankment shopping thoroughfare. It is smooth and congestion-free, without a single house flanking it, nor cross road or pedestrian crossing. Yet it is not fast. Absurdly, they have applied a thirty-mile speed limit and, just in case you are inclined to ignore this piece of nonsense and travel at forty, they have installed average speed cameras.
In the approach to this development coming from the city centre along Exeter Street, there was a road which allowed motorists to safely escape a hundred yards of nose to tail traffic leading up to Cattedown roundabout. Motorists have been taking this exit for years to no ill effect, but with the great benefit that it reduces the tailback of traffic leading to the roundabout. Now they are suddenly banned from this because it has been made one way.
How many streets, I ask myself, across the city have suffered a similar fate? Were the people who live in these streets asked for their thoughts on the matter? Were there accidents or fatalities that forced the planners into action?
I have spoken to people living in the street mentioned above, and they are furious that they cannot enter it any more from both directions. Yet all over the city things have been done to the annoyance of the people who have to suffer the inconvenience. And why? Because some pencil-pushing jobsworth thinks it’s a good idea, I imagine.
It was once possible to save time and relieve traffic on the busy Plymouth Road by passing through the Woodford estate. But now vast numbers of road bumps – which are exceedingly difficult to be taken properly and are often taken dangerously because of parked cars – make this route a nightmare. Again, locals say their views counted for nothing. It was imposed on them from on high – from our masters who know best.
I can only suppose that all over the city, and indeed all over the land, you would hear similar stories of ‘solutions’ foisted on communities with neither proper consideration of their feelings nor proper consultation with them. After all, they are the ones having to live on a daily basis with these foolish, not to say costly, changes. And when mistakes are plain for all to see there is invariably an arrogant refusal on their part to acknowledge them as such, much less to make restitution.
Far away in their ivory towers they hold to the view that the man in the town hall knows best.
A letter recently unearthed during a house clearout dated 1925 read as follows: ‘Dear Mr. Grainger, We respectfully draw your attention to an under-payment of fifteen pounds, eight shillings and four pence made on your recent income tax remittance. We are sure this is an oversight. May we suggest the 31st of next month as being a suitable date for settlement of the balance. If you require clarification as to how we arrived at this figure we would be most happy for you to call at this office where we will endeavour to explain. In the meantime we remain your Most Obedient Servant’. How very polite and considerate this all is. No doubt here who the boss is.
The signing off tells you all you need to know: the state in those days knew its place. It was, of course, nonsense to suggest that its agents regarded themselves as anybody’s servants, but the then powers-that-be thought it important to continue to emphasise what the proper relationship should be. Today it is all different; government is in the driving seat.
With 4 million CCTV cameras in place (by far the highest number of any country in the world – North Korea included) and the planet’s largest DNA database and every conceivable detail of our lives – both personal and financial – logged, we are well and truly skewered and corralled. The East German Stasi (secret police) would have been proud.
Only the media stand between us and total subservience. That is why almost the first act of any authoritarian regime is to muzzle it. What people need to understand is that authority, be it central or local, has an insatiable urge to accumulate power – to regulate and control. It cannot help itself. It is in the nature of the beast. Only our ability to scrutinise it through the media and force it to submit itself for re-election has any hope of controlling its growth.
We like to preen ourselves as being almost the freest society on earth. But does this really stand up? We are bossed around to an extraordinary degree. Gone is the fanciful notion that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. Hundreds of agencies have the power to barge into them and they don’t need a scaling ladder to do it either – just the local plod to intimidate any would-be heroes.
Our government recently wanted the power to lock us up without charge for 90 days and only the most extraordinary of efforts got that figure down to 28. And that is still one of the longest in the civilised world.
I cannot help believing that the age of terrorism has been a godsend to those most zealous in their urge to control us. It has given them the perfect cover to push through a range of measures under the mantra ‘Do you really want to get blown up?’ Well, the IRA were blowing us up for thirty years and were much more competent with explosives than the Jihadist buffoons – and just as ruthless. Yet we resisted bringing in all these special measures on the mainland so beloved of New Labour. They even talked of putting aircraft-like black boxes under every car bonnet until this was laughed out of court. But in truth it was no laughing matter.
They talked also of having all 62 million of us DNA tested – naturally, of course, so that they could catch more criminals. Townhalls were authorised to conduct certain types of surveillance on its citizens, and that ended up checking out people who were trying to get their kids into a decent school. Let’s not forget either the recent national census. Look at the ridiculous scope of the information it sought. And if you were unwilling to provide it, look out! You would be bludgeoned into submission.
But all is not yet lost. We appear to have a government (glory be!) which actually says it wants to devolve power from the centre to the regions. I never thought to hear it, but it says ‘Whitehall does not always know best’. It wants schools that answer to parents; elected police chiefs who have to clock up results or be thrown out; Mayors who have to run their cities competently or face the same fate; and even a social security network that protects the truly vulnerable, but not the army of scroungers.
The attitude of entitlement which so many display is truly marvellous to behold. What gives a person the idea that he or she is entitled to lie in their bed of a cold winter morning while their neighbour must get up and go off to work? And then, as if to rub salt into the wound, hold out their hand for large chunks of their neighbour’s earnings so that they can enjoy a not-much-different lifestyle. It’s actually all very bizarre. But the fact is that so many do really believe that they have that right. There’s no accounting for folk!
Nobody wants a return to certain of the bad old days. But not all of them were bad. We ought to cherry-pick what was best. Among them was neighbourliness, self-reliance (of the fit and able) and straight dealing – honesty if you like. Even today, members of the older generation are so imbued with this ethos of self-reliance that their pride will not allow them to take benefits that we would like them to take.
If man’s natural best friend is his dog, then his material best friend must be his car. I have long considered this a given. Men, in particular, obsess about this mechanical marvel. What else can explain the phenomenal worldwide success of the BBC’s Top Gear? Every Sunday these myriads of aficionados can be seen lovingly caressing cars’ lines with their polishing cloths, devoting a level of tender loving care which often puts that devoted to their children to shame. I actually believe there are men out there who, given the choice between their wife and their car, would chose the latter. Mind you, I think the same could be said about not a few of the wives!
I once knew a woman for whom the family car was all that seemed to matter. When, for instance, she split with her husband the only item she chose to keep was the brand new car which her husband had recently paid cash for. Anxious for an amicable separation, she didn’t ask for half the house or its contents, nor for half of her husband’s valuable share portfolio; only the car.
What can explain the otherwise inexplicable? I think I know the answer. Our species was originally a wanderer, a hunter-gatherer. When it gave up following the game and settled instead for a stationary, farming existence it didn’t lose its love of the outdoors nor of travelling. Going back further in time the same could be said of his continuing, ape-like love of climbing trees. We all, as kids, couldn’t resist a good climbable tree any more than we could resist walking along the top of a wall as though it were the bough of a tree. That too, it seems to me, is an echo from our ape like past.
For millennia most of us lived and died in an area no more than eight miles from where we were born. But then came the train, glory be! And then the car, halleluiah! The free spirit in us was liberated in a way not known even to our distant ancestors; it was as though we had sprouted wings. We were able to get places even faster than a bird! But unlike them we didn’t even have to work hard to do it. We could accomplish it effortlessly, in warmth and perfect comfort, surrounded by an amazing range of gizmos to amuse us, all the while listening to our favourite melodies. Here, surely, is the extraordinary appeal of the car. We have even made it beautiful to look at.
But who has come along seeking to spoil all our fun? Yes, you’ve got it: big brother. Despite providing jobs for millions, the state almost sees drivers as public enemy no.1. It tells us the car is a killer and a polluter, and it’s selfish to journey to work in a car made for five with only one in it. And as for getting places faster than a bird? “Well, we’ll soon sort that!” it thinks.
Up go the speed cameras and, when the public learn how to deal with them, up go the average speed cameras. The name of the game, you see, is to knock his speed back to such an extent that he’ll eventually opt for a bike. Meantime, let’s give him a taste of what stage coach travel was like with potted roads to contend with! In go millions of speed bumps along with chicanes to make him swerve violently.
Loving it, our transport masters sit in their swanky offices dreaming up what new road schemes they can inflict on us and what roads they can stop us using by making one way. But the bit they love the most is the way they are empowered to pick our pockets shamelessly with their fines and almost the most expensive fuel in all Europe.
All of which brings me to my final point. Didn’t a certain government, when it came to power recently, promise us that ‘the war on motorists is over’? Well, eighteen months on, I’m still waiting.