Orders of the Day — Energy Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th July 1973.

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Photo of Mr Leslie Huckfield Mr Leslie Huckfield , Nuneaton 12:00 am, 19th July 1973

The matters that I should like to raise are more appropriate to the Environment Vote than to the Trade and Industry Vote, and I do not particularly envy the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the very wide scope of affairs with which he has had to deal tonight. Nevertheless, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Douglas) for letting me latch my topic on to his subject, and I am grateful that he has chosen to raise this matter tonight.

Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) have admirably set the stage for many of the things I want to say. I do not want to precipitate any atmosphere of crisis, but I want to draw attention to some of the points which should be featuring in the Secretary of State's thinking in the Department of the Environment and some of the basic changes in our planning assumptions which we should already be making.

If we have not yet felt any particular draught from any forecast or any energy crisis in this country, there are already some gloomy forecasts and some dramatic happenings on the other side of the North Atlantic. We have already seen President Nixon's programme of encouraging oil imports, raising some of the price controls and encouraging people to drive their cars more slowly. We have seen the forecast of Professor Edwin Barbe, of the University of West Virginia, that by 1976 there will be 31 million cars idle in the United States, with a rate of unemployment of about 23 per cent. We have already seen American car dealers stuck with bigger cars that they cannot get rid of because of a switch by car buyers to smaller and imported cars.

In Los Angeles there are gas stations closing down at 6 o'clock in the evening and being closed for the weekend. Pan American has told its pilots to cut their cruising speeds in jumbo jets. Eastern Airlines has told its pilots to taxi round airports on two engines. There is even a possibility now that the conservationist-controversial project, the Alaska pipeline, may at last go through if some of the legislative tangles can be sorted out in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

We still do not know to what extent all this may be a scare campaign, but, even if it is something of a scare campaign, it raises some pretty important factors which will have international repercussions.

It was interesting to hear that the Prime Minister has said once again tonight that this country intends to go ahead with the third London airport, with the Concorde project and with the Channel Tunnel. I wonder how far he has taken into his calculations some of the energy forecasts which have been made in the United States.

Ought this country to be drawing up some kind of plan? Ought we to be encouraging certain sectors of oil consumption while discouraging certain other sectors, and perhaps, for example, discouraging central heating? I hope that the Minister will have something to say about matters of that kind with reference to his Department's plans.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire and the hon. Member for Bolton, East have discussed the implications of the oil crisis in some detail. I do not propose to go deeply into the Akins-Adelman argument in the United States. I shall not dwell on how much oil the Arab countries may leave in the ground or how much they may want to raise the living standards of their people. Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman know how relevant these factors are.

We do not know how much the Arab States will use their newly-won resources for speculation in the international currency markets. We do not know the possible viability of the Adelman-advocated boycott of the Arab States. We do not know the role of the Japanese. What we do know is that Japanese oil imports are increasing at about 14 per cent. per annum. We do not know whether the Akins forecast of oil at seven or 8 dollars a barrel is well founded, but what we do know is that the price of oil will rise quite substantially by 1980.

I do not wish to take tip some of the forecasts made by my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman about the role of North Sea oil in our domestic consumption. Suffice it to say that, despite the rather rosy forecasts which I understood the hon. Member for Bolton, East to give about the role of the United Kingdom as even an oil exporter, I still cannot help thinking that we could be involved in some kind of international oil grab, reminiscent perhaps of the grab for Africa at the end of the last century. Since both Japan and the United States have already put overtones of "a matter of national survival "on the search for oil, the competitive atmosphere for oil imports will be much more ruthless than some of the more gentlemanly descriptions we have heard so far would indicate.

We have such people as the chairman of Continental Oil even saying that over the next 15 years the United States will have to double its coal output and construct about 280 nuclear stations. I should not like to be as crisis-foreboding as that, but I believe that some sort of forward planning ought to be evident in the Department's thinking, because to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

The British Road Federation sent me some statistics to show that even if the price of a barrel of oil were doubled, because of the size of the freight element and the tax element, the price of petrol or diesel fuel would rise by only one-fifth. That may well be, because with a price increase there may be a substitution of propulsive power for road transport. This country's transport planning ought to take account of some notion of substitution.

It is because we are still planning on the basis of infinite mobility based on an infinite supply of energy and resources that I question whether we are sufficiently anticipating some of the problems we may encounter. It is a fact that there may be a substitution of battery-powered cars in cities, but I do not think we shall get battery-powered 32-ton gross lorries going up the M1. It is a fact that we may get other kinds of substitution.

What worries me is the kind of "locking-in" effect we may be producing by taking some of the planning decisions which have been taken. Speaking at a symposium on conurbation transport at Manchester University last October, Gerald Foley of the Architectural Association's technical studies team said: Well within the time span with which we are concerned as transport planners, rising prices and diminishing availability of petroleum fuel will impose such constraints on vehicle use and ownership that provision for the levels of traffic envisaged in current studies will be completely superfluous. In view of its dispersive effects on urban form and the consequent dependence on motorised transport, the 'locked-in demand' phenomenon (for example, once people have cars and oil-fired central heating, they cannot easily switch), the provision of additional facilities for motorised mobility above those available today can in fact be regarded as pernicious. That puts the point I wish to make far more effectively than I could.

Despite some of the very gloomy forecasts which have been made, despite an almost certain increase in the price of oil per barrel and despite a possible severe shortage of that commodity over the planning period with which we are concerned, we still go ahead with constructing low-density developments like Milton Keynes and talk about building big road complexes linking Birmingham with a series of motorways—M40, M38 and M42. We still talk about the ringways and about the "Chunnel" having to include provision for road vehicles, although there is ample evidence that if there were a rail tunnel it could be at least one-third cheaper.

All of this is based on the belief that there will be an infinite variety of supplies and infinite mobility as a result. The BBC energy supplies programme brought the point home clearly enough that we are moving all the time to a less and less efficient use of our existing and our future resources.

The Under-Secretary will probably say that, in supporting some of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Urban Transport, the Government are to some extent anticipating possible fuel shortages and encouraging the switch to public transport. He may mention such things as infrastructure grants and railway social subsidies. I do not believe that these are enough. I do not believe that we ought to commit ourselves to plans which will have this locking-in effect for the next 60 years.

Already, instead of just talking about the need to make the journey to work and from work by public transport, we should be questioning whether there should be a journey to work. We are still planning for long-distance commuting. I wonder whether we should not be questioning the raison d'étre of commuting.

I have always stressed the value of the motor car as giving more mobility to the working man and enabling him to take his family out and about, for recreation and other purposes. To go ahead to base all our transport planning on the assumption that the motor car provides universal mobility is a detrimental assumption.

Mayer Hillman and his team, in the very excellent PEP booklet "Personal Mobility and Transport Policy", have brought out the fact that even in Britain today two-thirds of adults do not have the optional use of a car and only 11 per cent. of housewives, even in areas where two-thirds of all households have cars, hold driving licences. Only 6 per cent. of pensioners hold driving licences. Despite this low level of mobility, we still go ahead and plan out-of-town shopping centres like Brent Cross which are totally dependent on private motor car access. But even in the year 2000 it is forecast that only half the adult population will have car access.

I wish to refer to some of the things said in this excellent and up-to-date publication. The London traffic survey, the Runcorn new town survey and all the forecasts made and on which plans are being based make such comments as The automobile has freed the family … and Public transport must be provided for the people unable to use cars, although they are relatively few in number". They say that there will be at least one car for every family by the year 2001". If we analyse the main ingredients of traffic plans for places such as Edinburgh and even the Greater London development, we see that we are coming to conclusions and basing plans with gigantic locking-in effects over the next 50 to 60 years which commit us to a determined transport policy. We are prepared to base whole town plans on the assumed universal mobility allegedly provided by the car. It is regrettable that most of the traffic forecasts miss out completely those who walk. We have never had a comprehensive inclusion of walking in the traffic surveys. But, despite that, we are now building roads and going ahead with projects which will generate their own traffic. We are going ahead on these bases, although, for example, the car will use about 200 sq. ft. more than the minimum allowed for an office worker.

We are planning suburban residential locations of such low density that it will be impossible to support a bus service without extensive subsidies. We are making plans when road accidents cause about 8,000 deaths a year, with all the environmental detriment of pollution, exhaust fumes, congestion and wear and tear.

In a nutshell, in 1971 we spent £35 million on subsidising school transport, £30 million on subsidising rural buses, £7 million on subsidising bus operations, £60 million on subsidising British Rail socially necessary services and £22 million on fuel tax rebates. Put together, those sums would amount to about 10 miles only of urban motorway. To put it more clearly, in this forthcoming year, 197374, it is forecast that we shall spend £896 million on roads and £173 million on public transport. We are committing ourselves very extensively on a basis of fuel resources and energy resources which cannot be guaranteed at present prices and pretty certainly during that period will not be guaranteed at all, despite the fact that the use of the railways can give us 10 times as many seat miles per gallon of diesel fuel compared with road transport. We are doing it despite the fact that the railways can give us the same seat mileage at one-third of the energy requirements of road transport. We are doing it despite the fact that a 1,500-ft. railway train produces 455 net ton miles per gallon of diesel fuel compared with a 32-ft. lorry which produces 143 net ton miles per gallon of diesel fuel.

There is already enough doubt the future continuity and supplies of our energy resources to cause us to do some drastic fundamental planning now. We must change the assumptions on which the planning is based. It is not just acceptance of the report of the Select Committee on Urban Transport that is required; we have to discuss basics.

We have to examine the role of and the necessity for the journey to work. We have to examine the need for public subsidy—extensive public subsidy—of inner city housing. We have to question severely the massive drift to the suburbs and the out-of-town living that is still going on.

There is the possibility that we should be bringing forward tax policies that would discourage mobility. There is the possibility too that we should be think. ing about which sectors of industry should be given priority in oil consumption, particularly as individual motorised transport cannot be adapted to nuclear energy or coal. In fact, if we are to rely on individual personalised transport, we shall have supreme difficulties in adapting to the other fuels mentioned tonight.

Worst of all, I fear that the kinds of plans now being laid down for the new towns and the new roads will commit us to what may become an outdated form of transport. If we are to question the assumption of enlarged mobility based upon universal provision and ownership of the private motor car, we should be doing so now, because otherwise it will be too late.