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Counting the cost of rural motoring

Friday 30 May 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, having recovered from the shock of a cabinet minister actually speaking out in the interests of country folk, is saddened by the fact that the minister involved – a Yorkshire MP - chose the wrong target to attack

MY GHAST was truly flabbered on Monday this week when a senior cabinet minister actually stood up and said something helpful about the problems of country folk in these days of closing pubs, post offices, primary schools and public transport services.

Admittedly, this is supposed to be what Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is supposed to do but so it was too much for his predecessors Margaret Beckett and David Miliband. The former left Defra in total shambles and the latter in the post too briefly to do much good so the mere fact that Benn chose to make a stand for rural England came as a pleasant surprise.

fuel prices
Will Benn price country folk off the road?

Sadly, when I read the small print under the headlines, I found that vegetarian Mr Benn, who is MP for Leeds Central and should therefore have some inkling about what is happening here in Yorkshire, had chosen to speak out on a recommendation that had absolutely zero chance of ever becoming law.

This was the impossible suggestion that every man and woman in England should be given – by the State – an individual carbon emissions allowance.

Under the plan – supported even by top Tory Yeo Thomas, chairman of a House of Commons environment committee – people who used less energy by turning their central heating down or running more efficient cars could actually sell some of their carbon to rich idiots who run Chelsea tractors in Chelsea – as opposed to the countryside – or like the live in Turkish baths.

This, of course, is arrant nonsense, no doubt dreamed up by members of the North London chattering classes who have a tube station at the end of the street. To enforce such a law would have meant the recruitment of thousands of carbon inspectors and even Gordon Brown, who has presided over the recruitment of some 800,000 extra civil servants in the past decade, couldn’t afford such measures now that he has emptied every last penny out of the public piggy bank.

Mr Benn is an avid supporter of so-called “green issues” but even he condemned such a scheme as being a particular burden on country folk, most of whom depend on their cars for work rather than play, and many of whom have to heat their homes with oil or electricity because they live far from gas mains. There are many in the Yorkshire Dales who still have coal fires and wood-burning stoves.

This is all very admirable. But I didn’t read any reports of Mr Benn, son and grandson of MPs, putting his head above the parapet to defend country folk from the greatest scourge of this present Government, the obscene levels of taxation on motoring, both in fuel costs and road fund tax, now called Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) as if giving things new names makes them easier for the public to digest.

Whilst Mr Benn was muttering about carbon trading, thousands of truck drivers were preparing to blockade London in protest against the price of diesel, which – depending where you live – hovers somewhere in the £1.25p per litre region.

Hauliers in the South East can actually save money by putting their tankers on a ferry to France, filling up there, and coming back to do their English deliveries, which makes nonsense of attempts to cut carbon emissions. This idiocy is exacerbated by the fact that petrol here is slightly cheaper than diesel, although it causes worse carbon pollution in most vehicles.

For us in the countryside, fuel prices represent an unavoidable part of the family budget

More than 60% of the cost of both goes in tax, by far the highest level in Europe, and the Government claims that it is using those higher taxes to fight climate change, which everyone knows is absolute piffle. When he was Chancellor, Gordon Brown put up fuel and other motoring taxes by some £40 billion and most of that has gone in additional Government bureaucracy and waste.

For us in the countryside, fuel prices represent an unavoidable part of the family budget and that budget is already being hit by steep hikes in the price of food, gas, electricity, water and council tax. And a lot of these hikes are knock-on effects of higher taxation.

Worse still, Chancellor Alistair Darling is planning an extra 2p a litre on petrol and diesel this autumn. This week, Labour MPs fearful of losing their £200,000 a year lifestyles (much of that in un-taxed perks) at the next general election, are demanding that this increase be postponed and stiff increases in VED be reversed.

These may be odd bedfellows for most country folk, but we should support their demand both personally and through organisations like the NFU and the CLA. If he is really interested in doing his appointed job, the Secretary of State for Rural Affairs should join with us and add his voice on a matter that really matters. Over to you, Hilary.

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