Why the war on motorists is wrecking the economy

The government used the pandemic as a pretext to intensify the “war on motorists”, a key element of the elite’s Build Back Better agenda.

Councils were paid to close vast numbers of streets to through traffic, often as part of so-called Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes. Main roads were narrowed and cycle lanes expanded. Punitive new charges were imposed, in particular London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone levy, and there are now plans to roll out similar schemes to other cities.

These draconian measures made little sense in terms of the Covid-19 narrative. If anything, car travel should have been encouraged to reduce the spread of the disease. Instead, these policies almost certainly forced more people to use public transport than otherwise would have been the case – despite the apparent infection risks.

Government mismanagement of the pandemic also had a devastating impact on the economy. A massive state spending binge, combined with central bank money-printing on a huge scale, contributed to a cocktail of soaring inflation, a cost-of-living crisis and ballooning public debt.

The obvious way out of this predicament is to adopt policies that facilitate robust economic growth. This would increase tax revenues without a harmful rise in tax rates, thereby mitigating the government debt issue. It would also tend to increase real wages, addressing the cost-of-living problem.

The key to generating growth is rising productivity. But today many government policies seem to be deliberately designed to reduce productivity and undermine improvements in living standards. The war on motorists is a prime example.

A series of measures seem deliberately designed to increase congestion. These include a big rise in the number of traffic lights; the narrowing of junctions to reduce flows; the reduction of road space to make way for bus and cycle lanes; the widening of pavements; and the closure of through routes.

The resulting traffic jams lead to major productivity losses, with drivers wasting time sitting in their vehicles and burning fuel while stopping and starting repeatedly. While it is hard to put a precise figure on the resulting costs to the economy, estimates for losses from congestion in the UK are as high as £40 billion a year.

But the negative impact of anti-car measures goes far beyond this. Journeys are delayed even when there is no congestion. Motorists are stopped by traffic lights even in the middle of the night when the streets are empty. They have to crawl along at 20mph in boroughs where speed limits have been slashed. They have to take long diversions where through roads have been blocked off in so-called low-traffic neighbourhoods. And they have to drive around finding somewhere convenient to park because the council has restricted the number of spaces.

The impact of all this on productivity is especially obvious in the cases of delivery drivers and tradesmen. A delivery driver can make fewer deliveries in a given amount of time due to the artificial delays and diversions. A plumber or electrician can make fewer repairs due to the additional time required to travel between jobs.

In addition, the productivity of the retail sector is negatively affected. Because it takes longer to travel to a given outlet, shops will tend to be smaller, serving a lower population, thereby reducing economies of scale and efficiency. The delays will have a similar impact on distribution, favouring smaller and less efficient warehouses rather than larger, more efficient ones a greater distance apart.

Employment opportunities are also harmed. If a potential worker is prepared to commute for an hour each way, then the delays will reduce the size of the area in which he or she is prepared to take a job. With fewer options available, workers are less likely to find employment that is a good match for their skills – an outcome that again will tend to reduce productivity.

Similarly, businesses will have a smaller pool of potential workers available. They may struggle to find the right people. An entrepreneur might decide to build a smaller and less-efficient factory because the number of suitable workers within its catchment area is lower than otherwise would be the case. And clusters of expertise, together with associated competition and innovation, will tend to be negatively affected due to the shrinkage of the talent available in any given location.  

The negative effects on labour mobility will of course be multiplied if the war on the motorist leads workers to abandon car ownership entirely. Vast swathes of the country are poorly served by public transport, which typically isn’t viable outside urban areas with a high population density and core routes between cities. Commuting by public transport is often completely impractical in the outer suburbs, yet alone in rural areas.

This article has only scratched the surface in terms of the damage being done. The enormous impact of anti-car policies on ambulances and the other emergency services hasn’t been discussed, for example.

The big question is whether our politicians understand the scale of the harm they’re inflicting.  Perhaps they think the ends of this draconian top-down agenda justify the means.

Richard Wellings

Should HS2 be converted into a road?

Imagine the following nightmare scenario for HS2…

Phase One opens in 2033, around seven years later than originally planned, and tens of billions over budget.

To make matters worse, travel patterns have changed dramatically since High Speed 2 was first conceived. Routine business meetings now take place online, meaning demand for business travel has collapsed.

At the same time, a high proportion of professionals now work from home most of the week. They come into the office only occasionally and often avoid travelling during peak hours. The misery of long-distance rail commuting has largely been consigned to the past – at least for higher income groups.

HS2 still attracts a large number of passengers, though as with HS1, far fewer than forecast when the project was approved. The government has deliberately been slowing down services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). As predicted, they have rigged the rail market to push more passengers onto the new route.

Competition is still a problem, however. Because few business travellers are using HS2, the vast majority of passengers are day-trippers, tourists, students and so on. They will switch to a slower journey on the WCML, the Chiltern Line, or even the coach if it saves them a few pounds. Inevitably this puts downward pressure on fares.

HS2 therefore faces financial disaster. Its construction was never going to be commercially viable, but it now requires heavy subsidies just to cover its operating costs.

And there are other clouds on the horizon. Driverless cars are finally being rolled out. While their top speed is lower, door-to-door journeys are often quicker than by HS2 – and far more convenient too, particularly for the elderly and those carrying luggage. The demand for rail is being further eroded.

HS2 has therefore become a major headache for ministers. They’ve already wasted tens of billions building the scheme and now it’s going to cost billions more to keep it running. In practice, this will mean cutting services on other parts of the network. After years of economic stagnation, the Treasury can no longer justify vast subsidies for the rail industry.

But there could be a solution.

Converting HS2 into a road has the potential to turn a heavily loss-making white elephant into a profitable business that could cover its operating costs and perhaps help to fill the financial black hole left by the project’s construction.

The government has claimed that up to 18 trains per hour, in each direction, could run along the southern section of HS2. Each train would carry up to 1,100 passengers. This amounts to roughly 20,000 passengers per hour. However, there is widespread scepticism that the planned frequency can be achieved in practice, particularly when many of the services are likely to experience delays on the legacy network before they join the new high-speed line.

Nevertheless, conversion into a road would massively increase potential capacity. Should the market demand it, the route could be managed to eliminate congestion and to maximise passenger numbers. Applying conservative assumptions, 600 coaches an hour, or one every six seconds, could carry 30,000 passengers an hour in each direction with 50 passengers per vehicle. (There are several real-world examples of busways achieving similar results). And obviously there would be relatively simple ways of increasing capacity further, for example by using driverless technology to reduce the gap between vehicles. A two-second gap – frequently observed already on motorways – equates to 1,800 vehicles per hour, or 90,000 passengers – around five times an optimistic figure for HS2.

As for journey times, it’s true that HS2 would reach a far higher top speed than the coaches. However, door-to-door journey times are what counts. The coaches would boast a far higher service frequency. Perhaps one would leave central Birmingham every minute. Better still, they could serve a much wider range of destinations, offering direct services into London and other places on or near the route from a large number of towns, villages and suburbs. Services could use the existing road network before joining and after leaving the former HS2. In this way, a far larger population could benefit directly from the new infrastructure.

Similarly, in London services could go to numerous destinations directly and wouldn’t have to terminate at Euston – perhaps continuing to the West End, City or Victoria Coach Station, for example. This in-built flexibility – which could also open up the route to shorter commuter journeys within the south-east – offers the potential of using the path of HS2 far more intensively than under existing plans.   

The shift in travel patterns detailed above suggests that an ultra-high-capacity route might not be needed. In this case, spare “slots” could be sold to cars and goods vehicles, raising additional revenue and taking pressure off the motorway network. A congestion-free road into central London could prove extremely valuable.

While it has not been possible to cover every aspect of railway conversion in this article (for more details and technical analysis, see the main Transport Watch website), the evidence suggests this option would provide higher capacity at significantly lower cost than HS2 – which would translate into lower fares and eliminate the need for operating subsidies. In addition, there would be major benefits from the greater flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions and new technologies. Finally, there could be significant environmental benefits, with lower top speeds translating into less noise and reduced energy consumption compared with HS2. (Given current policies, it is assumed that the road vehicles using the route would be electric by the mid-2030s).   

Going back to the situation in 2022, the best option remains cancellation of the entire High Speed 2 project. Even though billions have already been spent, the remaining budget would still deliver much higher returns if redeployed elsewhere (see the sunk-cost fallacy). Nevertheless, at some stage over the next few years Phase 1 of HS2 will hit the point of no return – not least due to the political embarrassment from abandoning it as it nears completion.    

When this happens, wouldn’t it make sense for ministers to reconsider the final trajectory of the scheme? Clearly it would be less costly to decide on the road option at a relatively early stage rather than installing a railway, and all its paraphernalia, only to rip it out a few years later.

Richard Wellings

Image: gov.uk

How to avoid paying the London ULEZ charge

A key part of the “climate change” agenda is the policy of driving ordinary people out of their cars and as a result making motoring the preserve of the wealthy and well-connected. One of its most enthusiastic promoters in the UK appears to be Transport for London.

Across the capital, the space available for cars is being reduced, with numerous roads either closed or narrowed, often to make way for bus or cycle lanes that are barely used. Speed limits have also been lowered and the number of traffic controls expanded. Adding to motorists’ misery, a new £12.50 daily charge has been imposed on drivers of older vehicles inside an extended and extensive Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) bounded by the North and South Circular Roads.

The new charge is reprehensible in several ways. Firstly it targets older vehicles which tend to be driven by poorer motorists. In other words it could be perceived as a sly way of trying to force poorer motorists off the roads without stating this openly.

Secondly, it targets diesels in particular, even relatively new ones – this just a few years after motorists were encouraged to buy diesels by the government because they were told they were better for the environment. Diesel drivers have clearly been betrayed after following government advice and now face heavy losses, either through the ULEZ charge, depreciation or the costs of buying a different vehicle.

Finally, the charge is being imposed during a pandemic, a time when elderly and other vulnerable people are avoiding public transport due to the infection risks. This is also a bad time for drivers to be out and about looking for a newer car. Moreover, the policy adds insult to injury for those who need to drive as part of their job and now face a large extra bill at an already extremely difficult time.

It should also be noted that the pretext for the charge – reducing the harm to health from air pollution – doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. The “evidence” behind this policy is highly questionable, with some commentators describing it as “junk science”. Moreover, the charge itself is unlikely to make much difference to levels of air pollution, yet alone to people’s health. And restricting people’s mobility is likely to be harmful in many ways – fewer outings and less exercise, for example – while the associated economic damage will tend to mean fewer resources are available for healthcare.

Indeed it’s possible that there is a hidden agenda behind this supposed health measure, namely putting in the infrastructure for more general and widespread road-user charging. This would be used to drive even more motorists off the roads, not just owners of older vehicles. It would be naive to expect TfL not to massively expand charging over time, especially given the longer-term anti-car agenda.

In this context, it is imperative that motorists resist this programme and do everything they can to starve TfL of revenue, thus limiting the resources it has available to impose yet more harmful policies.   

Owners of older vehicles who drive frequently and extensively within the ULEZ zone realistically have little choice except to buy another vehicle instead of paying the prohibitive charges. However, for more occasional motorists, there are several strategies that could mitigate the costs and perhaps tip the balance in favour of keeping an older car – particular if much of the mileage takes place outside inner London.

The first method is to cluster trips on a single day, only paying the charge once rather than several times had the trips been spread out over several days. This is not ideal and could take some organising – it will not be possible for everyone – but could be worthwhile financially for those with sufficient flexibility.

Another strategy is to cooperate with nearby friends or family to borrow each other’s cars, providing the drivers are insured and with due regard for infection risks among the vulnerable. So, for example, one friend would use the vehicle in the morning, another in the afternoon, and another in the evening. Using the same car would mean only paying the charge once instead of three times. Alternatively, a driver who owns an older diesel could borrow a friend’s newer petrol vehicle.

For drivers who live relatively near the ULEZ boundary, it may be feasible to park outside the zone and stay out of it for the vast majority of shopping, business and leisure trips.

Finally, Transport for London has been reluctant to disclose the location of its ULEZ enforcement cameras, despite several Freedom of Information requests. The zone covers a large area and coverage is unlikely to be comprehensive. Those of a suspicious nature might think this is the real reason why several London councils closed numerous minor through roads in the months leading up to the ULEZ extension.

Many people will understandably not want to break the law on principle, even if the ULEZ is unethical in many ways. Nevertheless, it seems likely that some shorter journeys may be possible without the charge being imposed – particularly if obvious pinch points like major junctions and main roads entering the zone are avoided.

One possible way to experiment with this is to join the ULEZ Auto Pay system and then keep a record of the routes taken each day, say by marking them on a map. It will soon become clear which journeys are possible without the charge being imposed.

Drivers may feel that there is little they can do to resist the global agenda to reduce their mobility by forcing them out of their cars. However, there are ways to limit the damage and also push back by defunding the organisations hellbent on transforming our way of life without our consent.

Richard Wellings

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Wasting tens of billions on uneconomic rail schemes won’t level up the North

The North of England’s economic problems are undeniable. There is relatively little wealth creation in its once-great cities. The entrepreneurial dynamos of the industrial revolution are now heavily dependent on government handouts, with public spending typically making up half or more of their ‘GDP’.

Even the bright spots of the northern economy are creatures of the state. The universities rely in large part on government-guaranteed loans and research grants. And the professional services sector concentrated in Leeds and Manchester is parasitic on costly regulations imposed on individuals and businesses. In reality it represents the destruction of wealth.

Unfortunately it’s difficult to be optimistic about the northern economy in the long term. A combination of high costs and mediocre human capital (skills etc.) means that the region will continue to struggle.

A programme of radical spending cuts and deregulation could of course reduce the costs of doing business in the North – but the short-term effect on public services and local economies is unlikely to be politically palatable. The scale of deregulation required to make a significant impact is probably impossible while the UK remains signed up to red tape imposed by the EU and various other supranational bodies.

At the same time, long-term demographic trends are likely to exacerbate the region’s human capital problem, with increasing numbers of elderly and incapacitated, as well as young people typically ill-equipped to undertake high-skilled jobs. Those who think improved training and education can resolve the latter issue are surely deluded.

The tides of economic geography are also working against the North. The region finds itself on the periphery of a Western Europe sinking rapidly into stagnation and irrelevance as the global core shifts to the East. Indeed, even the region’s handouts may be at risk as the vast UK revenues based on Western geopolitical power and associated market-rigging eventually unravel.

In this context there is a ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ quality to the government’s levelling-up agenda, which in part reheats George Osborne’s plan to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ by speeding up rail journeys between the region’s major centres. This is not, however, to deny that transport investment has the potential to deliver significant economic benefits.

Reductions in transport costs lower the cost of exchange, which in turn boosts trade and brings higher productivity through specialisation, economies of scale and so on. They also enable the development of agglomerations, clusters of activity that may further increase productivity and output. For example, thicker labour markets may lead to the better matching of workers to jobs and increased firm density may lead to greater knowledge sharing and to increased specialisation in supply chains.

Thus, in theory, better transport links could improve the economic performance of the North by enabling its businesses to make better use of its human capital. There could also be significant benefits from creating a larger hub in say Manchester. Improving the connectivity of the airport, for example, could increase the number of flight destinations that are economically viable, raising the attractiveness of the city as a business location.

Improved transport infrastructure in the North won’t be enough to overcome the region’s long-term structural problems, and it can’t reverse the impact of global economic trends, but it does have the potential to improve economic performance and perhaps slow down the rate of relative decline. This conclusion, however, depends on the assumption that such infrastructure would deliver a substantial reduction in transport costs in the North, which is where proposals to ‘invest’ billions in rail improvements fall short.

Indeed, the plans are likely to be useless for the vast majority of transport users in the region, and worse still will impose large tax costs and deadweight losses on the wider economy.

Consider plans for an enhanced rail link between Manchester and Leeds city centres – whether branded as part of HS3 or Northern Powerhouse Rail or a less ambitious improvement to the existing line. Imagine that journey times are cut from around 50 minutes to about half an hour.

Such an outcome is, however, unlikely to deliver significant results in terms of the thicker labour markets and other ‘agglomeration economies’ that are essential element to the aim of having these cities work as a single economic unit.

The main problem is the geography of northern conurbations. They are ‘multinucleated settlements’ comprising numerous smaller centres such as Stockport, Oldham, Salford, Rochdale etc. In addition, the region exhibits a high degree of suburbanisation and has experienced significant counterurbanisation.

Despite the huge government subsidies poured into inner-city regeneration programmes over the last thirty years, the vast majority of high-skilled workers reside in the outer suburbs or semi-rural villages. The gentrified inner-city districts so characteristic of London are largely absent.

The urban geography of the north suggests that a 30-minute city centre to city centre journey time would not deliver the single labour market so vital to the vision of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Typical door-to-door journeys would still be too time consuming and expensive for practical daily commuting. Indeed the seemingly quite large percentage reduction in travel times promised by rail improvements becomes relatively small when examined in these terms.

To give a practical example, take someone who lives in the wealthy suburbs of north Leeds and works in Manchester. The bus trip to Leeds station takes say 35 minutes in the morning peak, but in practice the commuter has to allow 50 minutes to give some leeway for transfers and the walking involved. The 30-minute ‘high-speed’ trip to Manchester takes the total up to 80 minutes, and then the worker faces say a 10-minute walk to his office – making a total of 90 minutes or a 3-hour round trip, about three times the average.

The situation is of course similar or worse for residents of many of the various ‘satellite’ towns and villages in the region. It should also be noted that employment hubs, such as the universities, main hospitals and Salford Quays are often a considerable distance from the city centre stations, increasing travel times further.

Such long journeys would be unacceptable and/or impractical for the vast majority of potential commuters, effectively adding 40 per cent or more to the length of the working week. Moreover, the cost – about £4,000 a year based on current fares and possibly much more if a ‘high speed’ premium were charged – makes this option prohibitive for many workers.

Urban planners might attempt to address at least the travel-time problem by encouraging more high-paid workers to live in city centres through adopting policies of restricting suburban development and driving it instead into high-density tower blocks close to rail hubs. At the same time, businesses could be forced or nudged to locate near the stations. This could perhaps get door-to-door round trips to just under 2 hours.

But even if Kowloon densities were achieved, say of 100,000 residents in the square mile around the main hub stations, this would still represent a tiny fraction of the total population of Yorkshire and Lancashire – and in reality not all of the residents would be trans-Pennine commuters. This hardly suggests a transformative effect on the regional economy. Such high-density environments also create numerous costs and problems, such as anti-social behaviour and congestion, the so-called diseconomies of agglomeration. Moreover, it’s difficult to see how they would appeal beyond quite limited niche groups.

It therefore seems likely that rail improvements will prove a costly failure in terms of uniting the labour markets of Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. Worse still, the North will have to contribute a significant share of the tax bill and suffer a proportion of the resulting wider economic losses. Even if London and the South-East pay much of the cost, this will still have a negative knock-on effect on northern economies.

Rail schemes will also be largely useless in terms of freight transport in the north, further diminishing its potential to deliver many of the vaunted competition and specialisation benefits. This also applies to many businesses that rely on cars and vans to carry their equipment, such as construction firms. Faster rail links are only likely to benefit a small number of sectors, particularly professional services, which as mentioned earlier is typically parasitic on other businesses and typically contributes little to wealth creation.

Indeed the relatively short distances between the major northern cities and their dispersed, multi-nucleated nature makes rail freight impractical and uneconomic apart from a handful of niche markets. It’s far cheaper to load cargo on to lorries for fast, door-to-door convenience. Unsurprisingly, given this fundamental obstacle, there has recently been very little rail freight traffic on the trans-Pennine routes between Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield – with the exception of bulk limestone from the Peak District quarries.

Accordingly, if reducing freight costs were a major component of the government’s strategy, resources would be allocated to the road network rather than rail. While some vague plans have been mooted and incremental improvements announced, it’s clear that faster rail links are the main priority.

Such modal bias is particularly misguided because it would be possible to fund trans-Pennine road improvements – such as a fast Sheffield-Manchester link – with private investment at no cost to the taxpayer, with construction costs covered by future toll revenues. Yet our politicians seem to prefer uneconomic rail projects. Indeed they often go out of their way to obstruct non-state initiatives to improve infrastructure, by imposing strict planning restrictions, for example.

Something is clearly very rotten in the state of British transport policy. Time and time again, politicians are wasting taxpayers’ money on ill-conceived projects that fail to deliver their objectives. Transport investment should be about maximising economic returns by allocating scarce resources in the most cost-effective way, but instead it has become a PR-driven process of grabbing headlines, ‘buying’ votes and paying-off special interests.

Richard Wellings

An earlier version of this article was published on Richard Wellings’ blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

How to manufacture a climate crisis

The establishment is hinting that the kind of draconian restrictions imposed during the pandemic will be redeployed to enforce their climate change agenda. As with Covid-19, a key part of the plan is to generate fear across the population through psychological manipulation and media propaganda.

The desired result is a major reduction in personal mobility, with ordinary people taxed and regulated out of their cars and off flights. Heating costs will also be hiked dramatically as gas boilers are banned and replaced with expensive and less effective heat pumps. Food supplies are another target.

The aim of the ramped-up indoctrination campaign will be to convince the general public to accept this top-down assault on their living standards.

Key elements of the programme are already in place. The BBC long ago effectively banned any proper debate on its airwaves. Don’t expect to see scientists who point out flaws in climate modelling on the UK’s state broadcaster; or economists who question whether the benefits of reducing emissions are worth the costs.

Establishment journalists have also been encouraged to insert climate change into news stories. Almost every time there are floods, reporters tell viewers that such disasters are likely to get worse. The same policy is applied to heat waves, forest fires and hurricanes. Even cold snaps are blamed on global warming as part of the “extreme weather” trope.

Improved communications technology has been a great help to this campaign. Alarming footage of disasters in previously little noticed regions now spreads rapidly around the world, particularly if it fits the establishment’s narrative.

But propaganda by omission is another key element of the strategy. The public is kept in the dark about the debate over the frequency of climate-related natural disasters – and the possibility that even if their frequency were increasing there could be other causes.

The role of government policies is also conveniently neglected. Environmentalist-inspired changes to river management policies, such as reducing dredging, have made flooding more likely in some locations. The “green” agenda and its huge costs have also contributed to cuts in maintenance spending on drains and other vital infrastructure. Green land-use policies promote construction on brownfield sites, which for historical reasons are often on low-lying land near to rivers.

Another long-term factor is urbanisation, which promotes flooding as water runs off rapidly from concrete surfaces into drains rather than being delayed by vegetation and soil. (It also increases temperatures via the urban heat island effect.)  

Policy changes have also been implicated in forest fires. Management methods designed to mitigate the risks, such as thinning and clearing combustible material, have been phased out under pressure from greens. Moreover, arson is a leading cause of wild fires in some regions. This human element is another reason why assessment of long-term trends is problematic. There have been examples of environmentalists engaging in other forms of arson attack, and it is worth bearing in mind the possibility that various kinds of political actors could play a role in future incidents. 

Finally, water shortages have been made more likely by policies to obstruct the construction of new reservoirs, including in regions with growing populations. The subtext is that the resulting shortages would provide a useful rationale to reduce consumption by imposing new regulations and compulsory water meters.     

So, there is substantial evidence that many of the policies imposed by environmentalists actively contribute to the “natural” disasters that are then used by propaganda outlets to promote the idea of a climate crisis. The economic damage caused by green policies also makes societies less resilient. Yet discussion of these crucial factors is typically absent.

There are two main dangers from the one-sided propaganda and indoctrination programme currently being implemented by governments and their media assets. The first is that it will encourage the adoption of harmful policies that impose higher costs than any climate change they aim to prevent. In other words, there is a high risk that the cure will be worse than the disease, with negative effects on low-income groups and poor countries in particular. A sensible strategy would be to implement win-win policies that benefit both the economy and the environment – for example, ending the vast and inefficient state subsidies and privileges given to various polluting activities. However, governments and transnational bodies have been curiously reluctant to adopt this approach.

The second danger is that climate change will be used as a pretext to bring in a far more tyrannical economic and political system, for example by empowering unaccountable transnational institutions that lack the usual constraints. Indeed there are clear parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic, which is being used as a convenient excuse for elites to grab more power and to impose vaccine passports as a stepping stone towards a long-planned global system of digital IDs.   

A free and open debate about climate change is absolutely essential if these alarming outcomes are to be avoided. However, the wider agenda behind the climate change narrative could plausibly explain why elites are so obsessed with eliminating dissent.

Richard Wellings

Image: US government

Une injection de tyrannie: des pass sanitaires aux cartes d’identité digitales?

L’imposition des pass sanitaires représente une extension majeure du pouvoir de l’Etat. Bien que présentés comme un outil de restoration des libertés de l’ère de la pré pandémie, en realité ils risquent de conduire à une extension des restrictions imposées à ceux qui refusent de se mettre au pas.  

Il y a aussi des indices qui suggèrent que les pass sanitaires sont en fait un des pans d’un plus vaste projet, dont l’objectif est d’introduire un système biometrique d’identité digitale. L’UE planifiait déjà les pass sanitaires en 2018, bien avant que quiconque ait entendu parler de Covid-19. Il y a aussi d’autres initiatives inquiétantes, telle que ID2020, qui ont le soutien d’influentes fondations qui bénéficient d’un accès privilégié aux gouvernments Occidentaux.

Le Royaume-Uni semble poursuivre un chemin similaire au plan domestique, en s’embarquant dans un programme d’identité digitale, qui met à mal les libertés individuelles de manière plus générale. Sous le gouvernement de Tony Blair, un projet dont le but était d’imposer des cartes d’identité avait été envisagé, et tout semble indiquer qu’au sein de l’Establishment, les initiatives high tech dérivées, aient la côte. 

Ce programme semble progresser rapidement dans les pays dits en voie de développement où des projets de carte d’identité digitale souvent financés par les fondations et gouvernements Occidentaux, sont pilotés, et consistent à contrôler l’accès aux services essentials et même à la nourriture. 

Dans un tel contexte, les pass sanitaires peuvent être vus comme un tremplin de lancement des cartes d’identité digitales, un moyen de conditionner le public à les présenter sur demande, et à les accepter. 

De telles cartes d’identité contiendront non seulement les historiques médicaux, les informations financières, biométriques, et toute autre donnée personnelle. Ces cartes d’identité représenteraient une atteinte au principe du respect de la vie privèe, mais elles pourraient devenir obligatoires pour exercer le droit de vote, accéder au marché de l’emploi, pour effectuer des transactions, et avoir accès aux services de santé etc.

Elles donneraient le pouvoir aux gouvernements d’exclure ceux qui refusent de participer au système, mais aussi ceux qui accepteraient d’utiliser ces cartes d’identité, mais dont les prises de position sur certaines questions épineuses, ne seraient pas du goût des élites. Les dissidents pourraient se retrouver à voir leur accès aux services de base bloqué, de manière à les punir et en même temps à les pousser en douceur à s’aligner. 

L’imposition des pass sanitaires serait moins inquiétante si elle avait lieu dans un contexte autre que celui actuel d’expansion rapide de l’Etat policier. Les intentions véritables des gouvernements sont d’autant plus suspectes du fait de la faiblesse des arguments avancés, liés à la santé publique, et qui ne tiennent pas debout. 

C’est un secret de polichinelle que le véritable motif derrière l’introduction des pass sanitaires est d’encourager les jeunes à se faire vacciner. Nous sommes face à une menace: si vous ne vous faites pas vacciner, vous aurez du mal à voyager, et vous ne pourrez pas fréquenter les bars et restaurants. 

Le problème avec cette approche, c’est que pour la majorité des jeunes, il n’y a aucune garantie que les avantages de la vaccination anti Covid-19 l’emportent sur les inconvénients. A l’heure actuelle, il n’y a aucune prise de recul qui permet d’identifier les effets de la vaccination sur le long terme, de ce fait, les décideurs politiques semblent avancer dans l’obscurité. Ce qui est moins clair, c’est jusqu’à quel point ces traitements sortis des sentiers battus empêchent la transmission du virus. Il y a aussi le risque que du fait d’avoir été vaccinées, certaines personnes relâcheront leur garde. 

Un scénario plausible est que les vaccins pourraient ne pas être aussi efficaces qu’on l’espère, notamment en ce qui concerne le fait de tomber malade ou de contaminer autrui. Il y a aussi le risque que les effets secondaires liés à la vaccination soient plus prononcés et plus fréquents que ce que les gouvernements et les médias admettent. En même temps, les vaccins et toute la désinformation risquent d’encourager ceux qui les reçoivent à se comporter comme s’ils ne peuvent pas attraper ou transmettre le Covid-19. De telles évolutions pourraient avoir un effet négatif sur les objectifs cités, et les pass sanitaires en seraient partiellement responsables. 

Finalement, toute évaluation des pass sanitaires devrait se pencher sur leur impact économique. On peut assumer qu’une partie de la population va refuser de se faire vacciner, peut-être parce qu’elle s’estime à faible risque d’attraper le Covid-19, ou d’en tomber sérieusement malade.

Disons que 10% des adultes font partie de ce groupe, en plus d’un pourcentage considérable d’enfants (ces chiffres pourraient être bien plus élevés dans certains pays). Une partie des commerces forcés d’exiger des pass sanitaires comme condition d’entrée pourraient en voir leur chiffre d’affaire réduit. Beaucoup de clients ne voudront pas subir les tracasseries qui consistent à se faire tester, si telle est l’alternative. De plus, la distribution des non vaccinés risque de ne pas être la même en fonction des zones géographiques, des groupes d’âge, des communautés, et de ce fait, certains commerces dans certaines zones geographiques sont plus à risque d’être affectés. 

Certains commerces pourraient par contre estimer que le jeu en vaut la chandelle, et estimer que cette option est préférable à un retour au confinement et autres restrictions. Et pourtant, présenter les pass sanitaires comme des alternatives au confinement et à la distanciation sociale s’appuie sur des postulats que l’on peut facilement remettre en question, notamment concernant l’impact des vaccins sur les infections, la transmission et les attitudes. De toute façon, au vu de la récente trajectoire autoritaire des gouvernements, il est très probable que cet hiver, ils décident d’imposer simultanément les pass sanitaires et les confinements draconiens. 

L’impact des pass sanitaires sur le marché de l’emploi risque d’être sérieux. Il semble que certaines personnes ne pourront plus travailler dans certains secteurs d’activité du fait de leur refus de se faire vacciner. Ils auront aussi beaucoup de mal à voyager à l’étranger. Certains patrons devront donc faire face à un vivier réduit de talents et d’expertise, ce qui pourrait conduire à des difficultés au niveau du recrutement et à des pénuries de personnel. Ça risque de devenir de plus en plus difficile de trouver le meilleur candidat pour un poste. 

Les opportunités pour les entrepreneurs et pour les échanges avec les partenaires  internationaux vont être réduites. Certaines personnes non vaccinées pourraient aussi décider de réduire leur activité économique, en réponse à ces nouvelles tracasseries et discriminations. Ce qui risque d’avoir un effet négatif sur la productivité, et de contribuer à réduire la croissance économique, et aussi à compresser les finances publiques dans le même temps. 

Pour conclure, il est difficile d’établir que les bénéfices des pass sanitaires l’emportent sur leurs inconvénients. En effet, si l’objectif des pass sanitaires est de protéger la santé, tout en réouvrant l’économie, dès lors, le raisonnement avancé pour leur mise en oeuvre semble biaisé. Il est difficile d’imaginer que les leaders politiques, ou du moins les conseillers et les fonctionnaires n’aient pas conscience des désavantages. Ceci renforce les soupçons qu’il y a autre chose qui se cache derrière les pass sanitaires. Se pourrait-il que leur introduction vise à conditionner le public à accepter l’utilisation de masse des cartes d’identité digitales, destructrices du principe de respect de la vie privée?

Richard Wellings

Translated by Jamila Nana

Image: Shutterstock

HS2 is not a cost-effective way of increasing rail capacity

The government’s policies to increase rail capacity are looking increasingly foolish when Covid-19 is already leading to long-term changes in travel habits.

Office workers may choose to waste less time commuting and work a day or two each week from home. Business people will increasingly use video conferencing software rather than wasting the whole day travelling down to London for a routine meeting.

At the same time, the government’s finances are likely to be strained over the next few years. Rather than wasting roughly £100 billion on High Speed 2, policymakers should consider more cost effective ways of addressing rail capacity issues. This would be a far less reckless approach to spending taxpayers’ money than a horrendously risky megaproject that is already massively overbudget.

Here is a list of alternative measures. A big advantage is that unlike HS2, they can be implemented incrementally, specific to locations where they are practical and cost-effective, offering far more flexibility in the context of huge uncertainty over future passenger numbers.    

  • Introduce more flexible pricing to flatten the peak. Passengers would have greater financial incentives to travel during the “shoulders” of the peak, or indeed off-peak, thereby making more efficient use of existing infrastructure and rolling stock.
  • Phase out government subsidies and price controls so that fare levels better reflect industry costs.
  • Convert first class carriages into standard class carriages to accommodate more passengers.
  • Introduce high-capacity “economy class” coaches with more standing room instead of seating, offering lower fare options. (This is only likely to be a practical option post-Covid).
  • Lengthen trains by adding more carriages and extending platforms. Double-length trains could even be used on busier sections and then split part-way through the journey.
  • Deploy improved signalling technology to reduce the necessary gap between trains.
  • Consider using double-decker trains where the engineering costs would not be prohibitive.
  • Address bottlenecks by re-engineering junctions: relatively expensive but still much cheaper than building brand-new infrastructure.
  • Divert freight onto quieter routes, enhancing loading gauges where necessary. For example, intermodal traffic from Felixstowe to the Midlands and North can be sent via the Ipswich-Nuneaton route rather than the southern West Coast Main Line.
  • Allow full vertical integration to end the artificial separation between track and train, and between different franchisees and open-access operators. This should improve the financial incentives to make more efficient use of spare capacity.
  • Finally, in some locations there may be a strong economic case for lifting the railway tracks and converting the route into a busway or road, the former typically providing higher capacity at much lower cost than rail transport.

Richard Wellings

Image: Shutterstock

An injection of tyranny: from vaccine passports to digital IDs?

The imposition of vaccine passports represents a major expansion of state power. While they are portrayed as a means of restoring pre-pandemic freedoms, in reality they will extend restrictions on people who refuse to comply.

There is also evidence that vaccine passports form part of a wider agenda to introduce biometric digital identity systems. The EU was already making plans for vaccine passports in 2018, long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. And there are other disturbing initiatives, such as ID2020, backed by powerful transnational foundations with deep links to Western governments.

The UK appears to be following a similar path domestically, embarking on a digital identity programme and undermining civil liberties more generally. There was a previous attempt to impose ID cards under Tony Blair and support for their high-tech successors clearly remains strong within the establishment.

The agenda is proceeding particularly quickly in developing countries, where – often funded by Western governments and foundations – digital ID systems are being rolled out to control access to essential services and even food.

In this context, vaccine passports can be interpreted as a stepping stone towards comprehensive digital IDs, a way of getting the public and businesses used to presenting and accepting them.

Such IDs will hold not just health records, but also financial information, biometric details and other data on individuals. They will obviously be terrible news for privacy, but they could also be made mandatory for voting, access to jobs and bank accounts, to rent housing, conduct transactions, obtain health services etc.

They would enable governments to exclude people who refuse to take part in the system and also people who carry the IDs but upset the “elite” in some way. Dissidents could find their access to basic services switched off, both to punish them and nudge them to comply.

The imposition of vaccine passports might be less worrying if it wasn’t taking place in the context of rapidly expanding state surveillance. Suspicions about governments’ real motives are raised further by the weakness of the health arguments for the policy.

It has now been openly admitted that a key reason for vaccine passports is to encourage young people to get injected. This is basically a threat: if you don’t get jabbed you won’t be able to travel easily and you won’t be able to go to bars and restaurants.

The problem is that for the vast majority of younger people, it is far from clear that the benefits of the shots outweigh the costs. At present no one knows the long-term effects of either the jabs or Covid-19, so policymakers are groping around in the dark. It’s also unclear to what extent these unconventional treatments prevent transmission. And there’s a further danger that the jabs will encourage people to behave more recklessly.

A plausible scenario is that the injections prove less effective than hoped at preventing illness and transmission. It may also become clear that the side effects are worse and more frequent than initially acknowledged by governments and the media. At the same time, the jabs and related misinformation may encourage recipients to behave as if they can’t catch Covid-19 and can’t pass it on. Such developments could at least partly undermine the stated policy objectives, and the vaccine passports agenda would be partly to blame.

Finally, any assessment of vaccine passports should examine their economic impact. It might be assumed that a certain percentage of the population will refuse the injections, perhaps because they are at low risk of either catching Covid-19 or falling seriously ill with it.

Say 10% of adults fall into this category, plus a significant percentage of children (the figure is likely to be significantly higher in some countries). Many of the businesses forced to require vaccine passports as a condition of entry will face reduced revenues. A lot of people won’t bother going through the hassle of testing, if that is the alternative. Moreover, the unjabbed won’t be distributed evenly across areas, age groups and subcultures, so certain businesses in certain areas are likely to be particularly badly affected.

Some businesses may, however, see the trade-off more positively if they view the alternative as a return to lockdown or other restrictions. Yet presenting vaccine passports as alternatives to lockdowns and social distancing relies on highly questionable assumptions about the effects of the shots on infection, transmission and behaviour. In any case, given their recent authoritarian turn, it is possible that governments will simultaneously impose both vaccine passports and draconian lockdowns this winter.

The impact of vaccine passports on the labour market is likely to be particularly serious. It looks like certain jobs will be denied to people who refuse the injections. They will find it difficult to travel overseas too. Certain employers will therefore face a reduced pool of skills and talent, potentially resulting in recruitment difficulties and staff shortages. It will be harder to get the best person for a particular role.

The opportunities for people to engage in entrepreneurship and exchanges with partners in other countries will also be diminished. Some of the uninjected may decide to reduce their economic activity in response to all the hassle and discrimination. These effects will tend to have a negative effect on productivity and therefore tend to reduce growth in output, harming government finances in the process.

In conclusion, it is far from clear that any benefits of vaccine passports will outweigh the costs. Indeed, if the objective of vaccine passports is to protect health while opening up the economy, then the reasoning behind the policy appears to be flawed. It is difficult to imagine that political leaders, or at least their advisors and officials, are unaware of the downsides. This strengthens the suspicion that there is more to vaccine passports than meets the eye. Could their real purpose be to condition the public into accepting the widespread and routine use of privacy-destroying digital IDs?

Richard Wellings

This article is also available in French

Image: Shutterstock.

HS2 and the “Great Reset”

High Speed 2 never made any economic sense. In commercial terms it was always going to make heavy losses. Ballooning budgets mean the costs are now likely to outweigh the benefits. And it’s crystal clear that alternative transport investments would deliver far higher returns.

So, why on earth is the project still going ahead?

One theory is that transport policy was captured by powerful special interests. Construction firms, train manufacturers and an army of consultants stand to cash-in from the scheme. They certainly haven’t been shy about lobbying MPs and ministers over the last few years.

Councils in the North and Midlands will use HS2 to grab yet more taxpayers’ cash to fund their pet “regeneration” projects around the new stations. No wonder they’re backing the line so strongly.

Then there are the senior bureaucrats. HS2 provides them with some of the best-paid jobs in government.

But there are compelling arguments against the special interests hypothesis. This is not to deny their influence on policy, but to question whether it is strong enough to be decisive.

Looking at political incentives, HS2 has been unpopular with the public, those against typically far outnumbering those in favour. The scheme has also been an endless source of embarrassment and bad publicity for successive governments, with numerous negative media stories on cost overruns, deception, incompetence, protests and the ill treatment of businesses and residents along the route.   

Having said this, the current government’s levelling-up agenda undoubtedly plays into the hands of the HS2 lobby. They could now argue that ministers were abandoning their pledges to boost the North should the line be cancelled or scaled back.

But earlier on, it would surely have made political sense to scrap HS2 and instead lavish the money on regeneration schemes in individual towns and cities across the region, including local transport upgrades. This would have been a quicker, more effective and less risky way of “buying” votes.

So, neither special interests nor political incentives seem to fully explain why HS2 is going ahead – which brings us to another possibility.

During the pandemic, awareness has grown about the so-called Great Reset agenda, often marketed by politicians as “Build Back Better”. This set of policies, promoted by transnational “elite” institutions such as the World Economic Forum and the European Commission, is being imposed across the Western bloc and its satellites.

At the heart of this shift is radical environmentalism – at least when taken at face value. In transport policy it translates into a ruthless war on drivers. This assault was ramped up in 2020 with the government paying councils to close large numbers of roads to through traffic and narrow main roads to install (often empty) cycle lanes.

Ministers also announced a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. The cost of electrification is likely to run into the high hundreds of billions, with motorists picking up much of the bill. The government is also considering introducing a national road pricing scheme, ostensibly to replace the vast revenues currently stolen from motorists via fuel duty.

It isn’t difficult to discern the direction of travel. Ordinary motorists will gradually be forced off the roads by a combination of regulation, tolls, taxes and closures. Driving (and also flying) will increasingly be the preserve of the rich.

So, how does this agenda relate to HS2?

At the moment a significant proportion of people travelling from the South East to the North or Midlands, or vice versa, choose to drive. Rail makes most sense for city centre to city centre journeys, particularly trips involving central London, which is car unfriendly to say the least. But if the journey starts and finishes in the suburbs, if other stops are planned en route, or if heavy luggage is carried, the car is often quicker and more convenient than the train.

However, if the Great Reset agenda is enforced, most people won’t have this choice in fifteen or twenty years’ time.

Imagine someone driving from Yorkshire to London in the not-so-distant future. He struggled to afford an expensive electric car and rapid charging socket, and is saving up for the eventual battery replacement.

He incurs heavy tolls as the government tracks his drive south. On entering London, the surveillance system levies an additional hefty “congestion charge” tax. He’s then delayed by 20 mph speed limits, cycle lanes, road humps and chicanes. The route he used to take is no longer possible due to road closures and he has to make a long detour.

On arriving at his destination he struggles to find a parking space. One side of the road has been turned into a cycle lane and the other is permits only. When he finally finds one, the charge is prohibitive. He decides that he won’t bother driving next time. He will use video conferencing or if absolutely necessary take the train.

So, the transport market is going to be so heavily rigged that most people will have little choice but to travel by rail if they make these kind of journeys – assuming they can afford it (these policies are likely to bring a major reduction in overall personal mobility, with negative knock-on effects on job opportunities, business costs, productivity and wages).

This authoritarian agenda may explain politicians’ attachment to HS2. Senior officials and ministers have been aware of and signed up to Great Reset-type policies for years. They knew a big crackdown on private motoring was coming and were just waiting for a pretext to impose it. In the meantime, the true scale of the shift and its implications would deliberately be hidden from the public.

HS2 will prove very useful to government ministers during the coming assault on private transport and mobility. They will deploy it to deceive the public that they are speeding up journeys and improving connectivity when for the vast majority of travellers the exact opposite is true.

It is no coincidence that the EU, together with the UK and US governments, are all now promoting uneconomic high-speed rail and very similar transport policies more generally. This is a top-down agenda, ordered by an unaccountable transnational “elite” and imposed by its lackeys in national governments. Both liberty and democracy are being crushed in the process.

Opposing this railway is therefore about far more than saving taxpayers’ money, protecting private property and halting environmental destruction. If HS2 is stopped, or even scaled back, our leaders will find it harder to undermine people’s freedom to travel.

Richard Wellings

Paul Withrington, R.I.P.

Paul Withrington was one of transport’s visionaries. His ideas promised a transformation in connectivity, with rapid, low-cost journeys right into the heart of the largest cities. The vast subsidies pumped into public transport would be consigned to history. And commuters could all be comfortably seated, ending the ordeal of standing cheek by jowl on railway carriages.

Paul’s key insight was that railway lines were often an inefficient use of transport corridors. Rail routes could typically carry far more passengers and freight if they were concreted over. The nature of their re-purposing would depend on the location and ideally a market discovery process. In the big cities, they might become high-capacity busways during peak hours. Shorter braking distances compared with heavy rail meant that a greater number of passengers could travel along a single track/lane.

A conservative estimate of 600 buses per hour, with 50 seated passengers on each, gives a throughput of 30,000 people – similar to high-capacity subway systems but at far lower cost. And relatively simple new technology could reduce the gaps between vehicles much further, indeed beyond plausible demand levels for any route in the UK. Importantly, Paul explained, the buses would be able to use the existing road network both before and after using the converted track-bed, eliminating much of the inconvenience and delay of having to travel significant distances to and from railway stations.

Several developing countries understood the benefits of achieving Tube-style capacity on the cheap. The busway networks of Bogota, Canton, Curitiba and Istanbul suggested the logic was sound, as did the Lincoln Tunnel’s Express Bus Lane in New York City. And these case studies did not enjoy the full benefits of redeploying rail paths that were fully separated from the existing road network.

In rural areas, smaller towns, and in big cities at off-peak times, buses might make far less sense due to insufficient passenger demand. The converted railways could then be used for conventional road traffic, but with the routes managed and indeed priced, Paul suggested, to prevent congestion. As well as much faster journeys, this promised to take heavy traffic away from overcrowded, stop-start residential roads and urban high streets, bringing major environmental benefits too.

Paul founded the think tank Transport Watch in 1994 in order to conduct, publish and publicise research into these ideas. The organisation expanded on the work of the Railway Conversion League. Drawing on his long career in engineering, transport planning and academia, Paul conducted rigorous statistical analyses on the comparative efficiency of rail and road.

His work attracted the attention of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which published Paul’s articles in the journal Economic Affairs, as well as on the IEA blog. With the support of Lord Vinson, the IEA later created a dedicated transport unit, and in 2015 we co-wrote a comprehensive report based on Paul’s ideas, Paving Over the Tracks: A Better Use of Britain’s Railways? It was a big success in terms of media coverage, with stories in the national newspapers and plenty of TV and radio interest. The editorial column of The Times praised the report for its innovative thinking. But it was ignored by the politicians. The hold of the rail lobby was too strong.

Paul also became a familiar face on the transport conference circuit. Despite his expertise, the organisers did not invite him to give presentations – after all, they depended on sponsorship by the rail industry. But he did get the opportunity to challenge ministers and officials during the Q&A sessions. He managed to bypass the gatekeepers again by publishing full-page adverts setting out the case for railway conversion in magazines such as the New Statesmen, Private Eye and The Week. He also found an outlet through his long and frequent letters to Local Transport Today, a rare example of a transport publication tolerant of open debate.

More recently, Paul focused on opposing High Speed 2, which he memorably described as “a fraud upon the nation”. In his transport planning days, part of his job was giving evidence at public enquiries into major road schemes. This mastery of detail was now deployed to analyse HS2. He contacted officials to try to get to the bottom of the project’s dubious cost-benefit analysis. But in the end, he had to back-engineer the calculations to uncover the assumptions behind them. It turned out that as HS2 costs ballooned, the government had adjusted upwards its forecasts of high-value business travel on the line, thus inflating the benefit-cost ratio. He shared his findings by submitting evidence to parliamentary inquiries, but their technical nature was not conducive to media interest.

Inevitably Paul’s research and campaigning activity attracted the ire of the rail lobby and its army of internet trolls. Rather than engaging with the arguments and debating them, they hurled abuse and tried to smear his character. But Paul shrugged off the nasty attacks with his characteristic good humour.

Transport policy headed in what Paul thought was the wrong direction from the mid-1990s onwards, with massive rail spending central to successive governments’ approach. Paul consoled himself with the knowledge that this policy would eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions – not just rail’s high cost base and inflexibility, but also its fundamental impracticality outside big cities and densely populated corridors. Despite ministers’ rhetoric, it was never likely to carry more than a small percentage of passenger and freight traffic, with attempts to expand beyond this facing a cliff of diminishing returns.

The railway’s finances were indeed already in trouble before Covid-19 hit. The big increases in Network Rail debt, which effectively hid the true level of subsidy, had begun to raise major concerns at the Treasury. Paul lived to see the shift to working from home and virtual business meetings – and its disproportionately negative effect on rail travel compared with road.

If these changes are permanent, even for quite a small fraction of the workforce, it could be catastrophic for the rail industry. A combination of high fixed costs and a significant fall in fare revenue could coincide with a government debt crisis in which subsidy increases face strong resistance. If railways become unaffordable, Paul’s ideas may finally get the attention they deserve.

Richard Wellings

This article was originally published on the Institute of Economic Affairs blog.