It’s just not fair

Sustainable Development Commission, part 2

In my blog of 7 Apr I introduced the report Fairness in a Car Dependent Society, produced by the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). This report contains what is to me a truly shocking fact (in section 4.1 on page 19):

The richest 10 per cent of the population effectively receive four times as much public spending on transport as the poorest 10 per cent.

I am sure that this is not the outcome of some wicked plan to punish the downtrodden poor; it is just the result of well-intentioned policies, such as subsidising train travel, which just happen to lead to this outcome. Chief amongst the drivers for this negative Robin Hood effect is that the rich travel more than their less well-off fellow citizens. This is illustrated by figure 7 in the SDC report (on page 21), which uses data from the Department for Transport National Travel Survey for 2009. The histogram for rail in this figure reveals that approximately 45% of miles travelled by rail are made by members of the community with real income levels in the highest quintile. This group travels more than four times as many miles by rail as each of the two lowest quintile groups.

The SDC regards this inequality in distribution of public spending on transport as unfair. It also points out that the poor often suffer disproportionately more from the effects of other people’s travel, adding to this unfairness. The report recommends (on page 10) that the Government “should make reducing transport inequalities a specific goal of transport policy” to tackle this unfairness.

It does not escape the attention of the SDC that high speed rail is unlikely to do much to address this inequality. The report says (on page 59):

…those in the highest income quintile are the greatest users of rail. Despite commitments to ensure that new high speed services would not be offered at premium prices it could therefore be argued that higher benefit groups would stand to benefit most from large scale investment in a high speed rail network.

I think that the “commitments” that HS2 will not be priced at a premium are to be distrusted. If the tickets are not premium priced, in order to reflect the costs of providing the service, then it will mean that the subsidies are likely to be larger. Either way HS2 will serve to increase the inequality that the SDC complains about.

The SDC is not only concerned with the issue of fairness to travellers; its report also considers fairness issues resulting from the effects of other people’s travelling. The report refers to a paper by Chris Wood (The Right to Travel, which may be downloaded here). On page 14 of Fairness in a Car Dependent Society the SDC summarises one of Mr Wood’s conclusions, as follows:

He recognises that choosing where to live and having freedom of movement are considered by many as basic freedoms in a democratic country, but argues that these freedoms must be balanced against the freedoms of other people to enjoy life without the negative impacts of other people’s travel. He also recognises that travel can broaden the mind as a means of self-development, but that this must not be at the expense of other people’s rights and freedoms.

The SDC supports this view and has taken it into account in devising its new approach to transport policy that I mentioned in my blog of 7 Apr. It singles out HS2 when commenting on this new approach on page 5 of the report:

…it challenges the view that transport is purely an issue for travellers. From a fairness perspective this view is inexcusably blinkered, as illustrated by the reaction to the proposed route for HS2 (high speed rail). Future investments in transport must put the quality of life of people they affect at the heart of the design process and actively seek to redress the wrongs of the past. An important test of the localism agenda will be whether it gives greater voice to communities that have for years sought action on issues such as noise from trunk roads or air quality concerns – and of course how the relevant transport bodies respond.

I said something similar in my blog of 14 Mar and am feeling rather smug that I now have official backing for my view. As a reminder, what I said was:

If a project is proposed that aims to bring economic advantage to a section of the population, but in doing so risks damaging the quality of life of another section of the population that may not be able to share in the economic benefits, then the interests of one group should be measured carefully against those of the other.

So the SDC is saying that it’s OK to be a nimby. Mr Hammond please take note!

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