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I have two things to declare. First, I am the vice-chair of the all-party group on fair fuel for UK motorists and UK hauliers. Secondly, on a more personal note, I was recently diagnosed with cough variant asthma, which was quite a shock. Eighteen months previously, I was climbing up the Mont Blanc stage of the Tour de France, and then I was in a Mongolian clinic—of all places—struggling for breath. There is nothing like being unable to breathe to bring home to you the truth, or at least the danger, that emissions pose to our environments, our society and the way we live our lives. It made me look into the subject more deeply.
As an MP representing one of the country’s major car-making centres, I want to urge people when they talk about emissions to have an honest and rounded debate. We have to look at things scientifically and practically. We have to think about things in the round and find the right solutions. Unfortunately, companies that are genuinely trying to be at the forefront of reducing emissions, such as Jaguar Land Rover, sometimes face moves that could damage their business and be counterproductive to the green agenda and local taxes.
We would undoubtedly be in a much better place if previous Governments had not spent years encouraging drivers to switch to diesel, but we cannot escape the fact that millions did so in good faith, believing that they were making the responsible choice. Reducing the trade-in or resale value of their cars actually makes it harder for diesel drivers to transition to cleaner alternatives, and that risks keeping older and more polluting models on the road for longer.
We have to carry people with us. What we want to achieve is not strict denial or a luddite attitude towards the economy. Spain has seen an increase in emissions over the past 10 years, whereas since 1985 the UK has seen a reduction. That is the result of economic growth and technology. We have been a successful country during that time, and that is reflected in our environmental policy.
I share the Government’s enthusiasm for the age of electric vehicles, which is surely coming, but Britain does not have anything like the infrastructure required for a rapid transition to widespread electric car use. Over the next decade, we will need to see a huge expansion in charge points and manufacturing capacity, not to mention ensuring that the national grid is ready for what could be a fundamental shift in demand. I speak regularly with car manufacturers, and I know that they are more than ready to play their part and invest, often exceptionally heavily, in the research and development programmes needed to make that a reality. But to do that they need stable revenues in the here and now, and that means a healthy market for cars, which we can build with today’s technology and infrastructure. If Governments, of whichever hue, stamp too hard on the accelerator, they risk stalling progress towards electric cares altogether.
This is by no means a counsel of despair. As I mentioned, diesel engines have made huge strides. We have the Euro 6 engines, for example, and last year What Car? magazine named a diesel car as “car of the year”. There are real opportunities in the near term to harness technology and dial down emissions.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of action that the Government can take in other areas to bring down harmful emissions in the here and now. Two areas that warrant special mention are construction and mass transit. Retrofitting older buses and lorries with cleaner engines would make a significant contribution to reducing emissions, but without penalising ordinary motorists or auto manufacturers.