Decarbonising transport debate: have Grant Shapps and the DfT tried to bury bad news?

Commuters cycle through Oxford Circus in London
The DfT's latest consultation document suggests that it wants us out of our cars and to cycle or walk instead Credit: Darren Staples/Reuters

On September 11 in 2001, as terrorists piloted two jet liners into New York's twin towers, which ultimately killed 2,977, a Labour advisor to Stephen Byers at the Department of Transport (DfT) sent a message of such cynicism it became known as the "now is a good day to bury bad news" e-mail. It proved to be the end of her career in the administration and a rather disturbing glimpse of how Government and its executive "game" the public in the release of important news.

It would be wrong to accuse the very same transport department of equal cynicism when, last Thursday, it slipped out an important consultation paper on the future of UK transportation. Events are moving too fast for that, but it was nevertheless an unfortunate coincidence that this was the day that UK Covid-19 victims reached 578, the then largest recorded daily increase. To paraphrase Wilde's Lady Bracknell: "Once may be regarded as a misfortune, twice looks like carelessness."

Perhaps Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, could have said something about this important paper in between smarmily thanking rail workers and road hauliers and pontificating about the possibility of purchasing a controlling stake in airlines struggling in the pandemic. This, of course, was something he didn't manage to do three weeks ago when Flybe collapsed, leaving 2,000 unemployed and threatening the future of thousands more at regional airports.

But for whatever reason, he didn't…

Decarbonising Plan

So what does this report Decarbonising Transport: Setting The Challenge tell us, in all 76 pages?

The tenor of the paper is that the DfT wants us out of our cars and on to shoe leather and bicycles, which it calls "active travel", claiming it could reduce yearly car travel distances by up to 0.9 per cent. It also promotes travel by bus, while largely letting aviation off the hook by claiming that new biofuels, electric aircraft and technology will decarbonise air travel.

The Government's consultation document appears to have let aviation off the hook Credit: MATTHEW CHILDS/Reuters

In the foreword Shapps outlines a vision where "we will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.

"From motorcycles to HGVs, all road vehicles will be zero emission," he writes, "and technological advances… will change the way vehicles are used."

Sound familiar? Try this from one of Shapps' predecessors, John "two-Jags" Prescott, 20 years ago. 

"We have had to make hard choices on how to combat congestion and pollution while persuading people to use their cars a little less – and public transport a little more," he wrote in the foreword to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' 1998 White Paper A New Deal For Transport: Better For Everyone.

John 'two Jags' Prescott also espoused reduced private car usage 22 years ago Credit: Peter MacDiarmid/Reuters

Much derided at the time, that report achieved little except "initiatives" such as the M4 bus lane, a daily snarl-up, misused by many politicians, which became known as Prescott Avenue and was scrapped by Philip Hammond in 2010.

More cars but driving less

Using the DfT's own figures, we can see that in the intervening two decades overall UK vehicle traffic rose by 15.1 per cent to 328.1 billion vehicle miles in 2018; car miles have risen 10.7 per cent, vans are up 61 per cent, bicycle miles are up 30.3 per cent, but buses have fallen by 30.3 per cent with UK bus journeys in particular plummeting in the last decade.

As far as cars are concerned, the number registered in the UK is, at 31,517,600, about 31 per cent more than in 1998, but we're using them a lot less, with average mileage down from 2002's figure of 9,200 a year to just 7,600 a year in 2018.

There are more cars than ever in the UK but we\re using them less, with average annual mileages reduced by 1,600 in the past 17 years  Credit: dawson images/alamy

Buses, deregulated by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1986, have consistently failed to address the transport needs of all but those in urban areas especially London, and it's interesting that Shapps and his department are still banging the same drum. The paper airily posits that all buses will be replaced with zero-emissions vehicles "over a period of time", even though that would mean replacing the UK's total parc of around 32,000 buses with battery-electric units at (conservatively) twice the price of a £300,000 diesel unit.

Historically, buses can be a bit of a money pit; as well as sundry multi-million pound environmental bus grants, last year's Government's National Bus Strategy commitment was £220 million and then there's the Byzantine economics of the annual £250 million Bus Service Operators' grant. Yet despite this financial input, bus operators claim that the services are 80 per cent commercially funded, so more expensive electric buses would inevitably lead to higher fares.

So electric cars are the future, are they?

Despite admitting that "we do not currently know the optimal path for delivering a decarbonised transport network", the paper eulogises the Government's £2.5 billion investment in plug-in vans and trucks (which runs alongside its generous grants towards the purchase of battery-electric cars), and its £500 million investment in a rapid charging structure over the next five years, aimed at putting every driver within 30 miles of a fast charger.

It suggests requiring the fitting of vehicle charging wallboxes to every new home and also posits CO2 calculators for all households to determine their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on alternative transport modes. It's worth reminding ourselves here of just how chaotic the Government's mandated fitting of smart energy meters to all UK households has been.

The document posits mandatory fitting of fast-charging equipment to all new homes, much in the way that smart meters have been

The paper also says that the UK is "a global leader in [the] development and manufacture" of electric cars (EVs), (a shaky assumption at best), and uses a bizarre set of comparative GHG emissions figures from the Energy Savings Trust claiming that an electric car would produce no GHGs at all in a journey from London to Edinburgh, completely ignoring those derived from creating the electricity to charge it – it also hilariously gives figures for walking or cycling on the same journey.

No hydrogen

And the paper doesn't mention hydrogen at all, which seems almost perverse considering that in the world outside the DfT's Great Minster House HQ there's a growing realisation that hydrogen fuel cells will absolutely have to play a large role in meeting any future net-zero targets; battery electricity simply can't do it alone.

What of hydrogen as a fuel, of which the only by-product is water? Not much Credit: Andrew Crowley

Yet the paper appears to have been written by someone who's been stuck in the lift for the last decade. It doesn't mention the transport needs of rural communities at all: "We will work with industry and communities… to make our towns and cities better places to live," it says. Nor does it mention the growing markets for electric bicycles, electric stand-on scooters, electric motorbikes and scooters, or the growth of ride-sharing apps such as Via rather than ride-hailing apps such as Uber, all of which could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps we should have known this was on the way. Last August, in his last blast before stepping down, Ian Boyd, the Government’s chief climate scientist, told the BBC that the public had little idea of the scale of the challenge to get to so-called 'Net Zero', which will involve travelling less, eating less red meat, buying fewer clothes, paying carbon taxes determined by government agencies and radically changing their lives.

On the other hand, Boyd was on his way out and politicians know a vote loser when they see one. Perhaps that's why the DfT has sneaked this one out, along with extending the consultation dates on its proposals for introducing E10 10 per cent bio ethanol fuel from April 19 to May 3.

At a time when we are mostly sitting at home, hoping for a different and better future whatever that is, this DfT paper seems extraordinarily prescriptive in some areas and almost negligently lacking in others.

"This document marks the beginning of a conversation," trills Shapps in his foreword, though it's surprising how one-sided that conversation is. Still the consultation process is now in play. Incredibly, given the current circumstances, the DfT proposes a three-stage series of workshops for stakeholders and interested organisations, but the funnel to attend those is as narrow as the timetable is optimistic, so you have to register ([email protected]) and even the DfT reckons the sessions will be oversubscribed.

As far as the public is concerned, your "important insights" will be tested by market researchers. You don't get to comment on the proposals, merely ask questions, although you might want to comment on the way this has been presented and organised at [email protected], or by writing to Transport Decarbonisation Plan, Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Rd, London, SW1P 4DR, or maybe your own MP.

You never know, it just might be worth writing a letter.

Is the DfT's new vision really the future of UK transportation? Share your view in the comments section below and in Telegraph Motoring Club