© 2017 Neil Stacey

Cars + health: the irony of Hammond and Chan’s statements this week

Yesterday the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Margaret Chan, stated that toxic air is now a greater threat to health than HIV or Ebola. Tomorrow,  the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, will announce new infrastructure programmes including a road building programme – we know this because we now live in a world in which all political announcements are pre-announced. In the background, there is news chitter-chatter about the possibility of the UK government financially supporting a scrappage scheme for ‘old’ diesel cars.

Let’s take a moment to unpick those three bits of information:

The WHO, the most influential and best resourced global body for health, is trying to draw attention to the fact that each year 1.7 million children under 5 die as a result of air pollution, with car pollution noted as a significant contributor. We have known this causal link for a while – this is not new news, this is simply the WHO trying to draw attention to this major health issue and influence governments, industry and the general public.

This would not have been news to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We can be sure that he did not hear Margaret Chan’s words, fall backwards into a comfy chair in no.11 and declare: “oh my god – I had no idea – this is awful news! I need to change my budget now !!”. We are assured that Hammond will announce more support for car travel by announcing support for road building. The more roads we build the more vehicle journeys occur; this is not in dispute.

The economic argument, that road building fuels the economy, is weak. It represents a lack of imagination that is par for the course; successive governments consistently resist the urge to be visionary and radical about transport and mobility in spite of the evidence. Announcing a programme donating two bikes to each household would also fuel the economy, as would announcing a series of measures to support the conversion of the UK housing stock into energy efficient exemplars. Hammond – the UK Government – will support road building declaring that it supports the economy, but will fail to point out that it also promotes poor-health lifestyles and will increase air pollution and thereby extend cancer risks to us all (Cancer Research blog).

More road building is bad enough. However, if the rumours are true, the government will also be putting money into a diesel car scrappage scheme, thereby financially assist VW get out of huge hole of their own digging, thereby supporting the purchase of new replacement cars – which VW will benefit from (car consumers have short memories – and those VW doors close with such an assured, “I am quality’ sound).

In a week in which the WHO have attempted to declare ‘enough is enough’ and inspire action, Hammond will find money to put behind his declaration ‘could not care less, the car economy is more important’.

Perhaps tomorrow I will eat my words. Perhaps tomorrow Phillip Hammond will announce modest road building support but high levels of support for pedestrian, cycling and electric mass-transport projects. In so doing he will usher in an explosion of  small and medium sized businesses providing for this new focus. Perhaps tomorrow Hammond will declare that all housing building will be subject to a greenspace levy to support a 25 year programme of green space creation and tree planting that urban historians will be in awe of in 150 years time. Perhaps tomorrow Margaret Chan will phone Hammond and weep for joy whilst declaring him to be her hero.