Sanjoy Sen: How can the Government accelerate a cleaner, more efficient future for transport?

10 Sep

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

“It’s a bit like saying we’re banning the sale of steam engines by 2040″. So responded Aston University’s David Bailey to the axing of “conventional” (i.e. petrol and diesel) new car sales. As green alternatives improve and prices fall, which they both are at last, today’s vehicles will become obsolete long before any government deadline.

On the face of it, the road to zero-emission transport ought to be straightforward. Anything too big to lug around massive batteries (lorries, buses) works fine as a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle (FCV). Small stuff (private cars) are well-suited to becoming electric vehicles (EVs). And intermediates (taxis, delivery vans) could be either.

That, of course, overlooks myriad “where” issues: where to source the hydrogen and electricity, where to obtain battery metals, where to plug in. And that’s just one future scenario: the automotive industry is feeling highly uncertain with autonomous (self-driving) technology set to ultimately consign driving and car ownership to history. Furthermore, Covid-19 might fundamentally alter travel patterns, with greater flexibility replacing rush-hour madness.

Here in ConHome last month, Ruth Edwards MP proposed bringing forward the cut-off to 2030 whilst accelerating electric vehicle (EV) roll-out. Although I can’t violently disagree with that, EVs still aren’t an option for everyone yet. Meanwhile, others who could switch remain confused about technology and are wary of legislation changes. So, in the absence of a clear roadmap, how best might the Government help transportation to support the economy – and the environment?

Short-term: all about EVs?

Last year, I made some tentative EV queries. At one leading manufacturer, the UK’s annual allocation had long been snapped up on-line. At another, the dealer had plenty more customers than cars. Whilst I chose to hang back, EVs are fast becoming a practical, affordable proposition for many: it’s supply that can’t keep up until battery production ramps up and new models hit the market.

An increased purchase grant or scrappage scheme would offer manufacturers a much-needed short-term boost. But, as per Norway, could these become largely subsidies for the well-off? There’s only one thing I might contest in Edwards’ article: even Jeremy Clarkson isn’t berating EVs any more, it’s the dearth of plug-in facilities that infuriates him. To tackle the public’s fundamental concerns, government support might be better directed towards the charging network. (And, for that matter, energy storage.)

For many, however, EV prices and charging headaches remain a deterrent for now. But commuting on a small battery backed-up by a petrol engine whenever required might offer a near-seamless transition. So, rather than focussing solely on EVs, let’s see the Government recognise the value of plug-in hybrids and support these also.

But the biggest short-term improvement in urban air quality might be via an early switch towards zero-emission public transportation. Whilst the Government has provided urgent sector support during the current crisis, the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) still favours diesels over FCVs and EVs: an obvious candidate for review.

What does the long-term future look like?

Environmental concerns and new technology put transportation into a state of flux long before Covid-19 did. And no-one seems more uncertain than the automotive industry itself. In Germany, Mercedes-Benz abandoned hydrogen cars just as deadly rival BMW announced its own FCV. Over in Japan, Toyota has long backed hybrids allowing Nissan to forge ahead in EVs, including Sunderland’s top-selling Leaf. Whilst in the States, GM’s Volt competitively-priced plug-in hybrid flopped (Vauxhall Ampera to us) – yet the public just can’t enough of upstart Tesla’s super-pricey EVs.

But there is growing acceptance that autonomous technology will prove a game-changer. Responding to the threat of sector entrants Google and Uber, Volkswagen’s vision of the future is a self-driving, shared-use ‘pod’, summoned up via an app. (So the next time you hear “I’m never buying an EV” or “you won’t catch me driving one of those plug-in things”, you’re probably listening to an enlightened futurist, not a frustrated Luddite.) This is a reality government needs to contend with in years to come, not decades.

Self-driving is often seen in a purely urban context but its opportunities could go much further. In rural areas, bus operators often ditch lightly-used routes uneconomic for a large, manned vehicle. Here, the Government might encourage early adoption of autonomous mini-buses operating in response to real-time demand: the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is a welcome first step in this field. As well as a lifeline for the elderly and the socially-isolated, as we work from home in remote locations or commute at different times, it’s economies with flexible transportation that will emerge the strongest post-Covid.

And what shouldn’t the Government do?

Gone are the days when you could freely drive any vehicle down any street at any time. But let’s not make the future any more complicated than it needs to be. In addition to addressing infrastructure bottlenecks and supporting new technology, the smartest thing the Government can do is not confuse or antagonise motorists.

ConHome regulars will recall my satisfaction at trading an ageing gas-guzzler for an eco-friendly hybrid – quickly followed by indignation at the withdrawal of its Congestion Charge exemption. Clobbering folks nudged into doing the right thing might prove highly counter-productive, creating uncertainty and provoking resentment. Similarly, the Scottish government’s Workplace Parking Levy (a hastily thought-out concession to the Greens) penalises those lacking a public transport alternative, whilst in itself doesn’t reduce emissions.

No-one can predict precisely how the future of transportation is going to pan out. But it’s critical for the Government to consult consumers, industry and experts alike before taking the big decisions. The consequences for getting it wrong are significant. Remember, diesels were once touted as the clean future. And why rolling out smart motorways before the advent of smart vehicles was never going to end well.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.

Ruth Edwards: It’s time to accelerate the roll out of electric vehicles

22 Aug

Ruth Edwards is the Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe.

The first electric car was built 130 years ago and could travel at the heady speed of 14mph. For a time, it looked like there would be a VHS-Betamax style battle royale between electric cars and the internal combustion engine (ICE), but the high cost, low top speed, and short range of early electric vehicles handed victory to the chugging petrol alternative.

We now know this came at a considerable human and environmental cost. Alongside contributing to an increase in global temperatures and climate change, air pollution is a huge danger to public health, contributing to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK every year.

The transport industry is the biggest single contributor to the UK’s green house gas emissions, with petrol and diesel vehicles accounting for 90 per cent of the sector’s emissions. Moving to electric vehicles is vital to protect our environment and our health.

It will also help our public finances. In 2017, health conditions caused by air pollution were estimated to cost the NHS £157m; this is expected to rise to as much as £18.6 billion by 2035 if action isn’t taken.

The Government is making big investments in electric vehicles, for example the announcement in this year’s budget of £500m for a nation-wide charging network.
However, to truly shift into top gear we must go further.

Over the course of this Parliament, we will build at least a million new homes. It’s vital these include EV charging points or, where this is not possible, that developers fund on-street charging schemes. This is over a thousand pounds cheaper than retrofitting them once ICE cars are phased out. There is also the question of car parks and motorway service stations. Supermarkets and large retail parks should make more of their spaces electric by default and should be incentivised by the Government to do so.

Even before coronavirus, the job market had started to undergo huge change as new technologies in automation, data analytics, and mobile connectivity begin to revolutionise work and the skills required.

Investing in the roll-out of electric vehicles and associated infrastructure provides an opportunity for the UK to get ahead by creating Green Apprenticeships in areas such as battery technology. We should also set up Zero Carbon Academies, in strategic sites across the country, where the government is looking to increase investment and opportunities for local communities. Ministers should also incentivise private sector investment in the EV supply chain, building on precedent set through the Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund.

Finally, we should take heed of Parkinson’s Law that work expands to fill the time available, and move the target for phasing out ICE vehicles forward from 2035 to 2030, the date recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. The car industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. As the sector recovers, it needs to look forward rather than returning to an obsolete model. This is a unique opportunity to leap ahead of expectations. Doing so will be in line with consumer demand. In the UK new petrol and diesel registrations have fallen by more than 60 per cent on the previous year, but demand for electric vehicles was up 21.5 per cent on May 2019.

The argument that this transition is somehow too fast is both defeatist and simply wrong. The pandemic has shown us how much we can achieve in a short time if we need to do so. As recently as a decade ago, electric cars were viewed very much as rather niche and something of a joke. Who can forget the time Jeremy Clarkson spent decrying electric vehicles and laughing at their range and price tag? With the latest offerings from Tesla, Nissan, Honda, Jaguar and others, no-one is laughing now.

After more than a century on the road, our automotive industry is overdue for an MOT. It will need radical rewiring of infrastructure and a completely new engine – and this time, let’s go electric.

Richard Holden: Three opportunities that open for us in an Australian trade deal

20 Jul

Maddisons Coffee Shop, Front Street, Consett

On Saturday, I did my sixth “Lockdown Litterpick”, around the beautiful Bollihope Common. A group of us bagged up five bin bags full of cans, bottles, pizza boxes and the general detritus that had been dumped in one the most beautiful spots in my constituency.

While chatting to my Association Chairman as the rubbish was collected, one of the volunteers revealed that she had emigrated from Canada to marry a Brit almost 40 years ago. Later that afternoon, I spoke with an old friend who had worked with me when I was a Special Adviser, before getting married and returning ‘down under’ to work for the Australian Government.

And later that afternoon still, on my way to my constituency office, I listened with interest to Times Radio as one of their correspondents gave an update on the New Zealand election – where the newly-elected National Party leader, Judith Collins, seems to be clipping the wings of Jacinda Ardern in an election that had until a couple of weeks ago looked as though it was shaping up to be a Labour landslide.

I mention these things because they to remind us that the ties that bind the United Kingdom with Canada, Australia and especially New Zealand are incredibly strong. Yes, they’re linguistic and historic, but they’re also based on families and friendships, and shared mature democratic systems of government underpinned by the rule of law.

As has been seen in recent years in both Australia and the United Kingdom, our Parliaments are more powerful than their premiers and the people aren’t afraid of switching out either if they’re not getting what they want. While Britain has spent the last few decades concerned over and trying to reform the nature of our relationship with the EU (which in 1980 made up 30 per cent of global GDP, but has shrunk to just under 15 per cent today) our CANZUK allies have been reaching out into the world.

I am very aware of how much with the grain some of these thoughts are in traditional conservative circles. But it’s increasingly clear to me that the opportunities presented by closer bonds with our Commonwealth allies are not some nostalgic pipe dream, but instead absolutely central to our future global ambitions, as well as the fillip our post-Coronavirus economy will need.

Our trade deal with Australia looks a though it might be one of the most comprehensive of the ones currently on the table, and there are three aspects of it that I’d like to flag.

First, Australia currently has a 20 per cent tariff on imports of luxury cars. Like the UK, the country is also right-hand drive. With our Range Rovers, Aston Martins and other top marques, surely this must be top target for negotiations.

Second, we’re much more understanding of Australians who want to come and work in the UK than the other way around. As we end our open borders with the EU and look at our Australian-style points-based immigration system, more mutual measures with our cousins in this regard must be a basis of future agreements.

Finally, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all very developed service sector economies, but even our biggest companies are dwarfed by those of our American cousins. By opening our services sectors up to each other, we’ll drive competition, lower prices, increase productivity and, crucially, enable the formation of global firms with the diversity and reach across the globe.

That’s not to mention the new security integrations between our counties as the power structures of the globe tip towards the Pacific more generally and in which Canada, New Zealand and Australia all have a massive stake. We should be looking to leverage our foreign, defence and international assistance policies more generally on these security and international arrangements, as well as looking to build closer ties with an old ally of manufacturing in the North East of England – Japan.

China’s recent actions towards Hong Kong, the Pacific island nations, the South China Sea and, domestically, to its ethnic minority populations should give us all pause for thought. At the forefront of the minds of our allies across Asia and the Pacific is Chinese outward expansionism, control and internal repression

For Britain, out into the world is our call now. The tectonic plates of geo-politics have shifted to the Pacific; away from Europe to the wider globe. The world, not just the continent, is where Britain is at home. Now we’ve got to make the most of the opportunities on our global doorstep – and that starts with building our relationships with our old allies facing a new world on the Pacific rim.

Alan Mak: A new tech scrappage scheme will boost productivity

2 Jul

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, governments around the world including those of Japan, Germany and the US responded to calls to help struggling car manufacturers by introducing popular scrappage schemes. After new car registrations declined by 30 per cent in the UK in the first quarter of 2009, the schemes saw demand bounce back, while dirty, polluting old cars were consigned to the scrapheap.

Now there is media speculation about a new car scrappage scheme – drivers will be given up to £6,000 to swap their petrol or diesel cars for electric ones – designed to provide a shot in the arm for the UK electric car manufacturing sector in the wake of Coronavirus.

Yet focus should also be given to how the Government could launch a similar scheme to help factories and businesses investing in the latest technology. We must use this period of recovery to press the fast-forward button on helping our businesses to improve their performance by adopting new technologies quickly, accelerating processes that would have otherwise taken many years into a much shorter period.

Just as the Government ushered a brand-new fleet of cars onto our roads a decade ago, a new scrappage scheme should be introduced for old and obsolete IT, tech and machinery. By particularly focusing on the adoption of robotics, it would achieve the dual ambitions of boosting productivity, and giving our businesses the cutting edge in international markets post-Brexit.

More British firms need to follow in the footsteps of innovators such as Ocado, who have created one of the most advanced automated warehouses in the world. Ocado’s newest fulfilment centre uses automation to pick 200 items per hour of labour time using its hive system – far outstripping traditional supermarket competitors.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates, for British manufacturers and suppliers to keep up with international competitors, they must upgrade the machinery and software that is powering the workplace.

Yet automation and the adoption of new technology is an area where the UK needs to improve if we are to boost the nation’s productivity and economic growth after Coronavirus. Research published by the International Federation of Robotics shows that the UK has a robot density of 71 units per 10,000 employees – below the world average of 74 units – ranking us 22nd globally. Europe’s most automated country, Germany, has more than 300 units per 10,000 employees.

Whilst the critics will always fear job losses from automation, as we recover from Coronavirus, we can create high-wage employment through robotics. I’ve visited factories, such as Harwin’s manufacturing site near my own constituency of Havant, that have successful re-trained factory workers as high-skilled robot operators. We must rebut trade union leaders and others holding back change and hindering the adoption of new technology.

Just as a car scrappage scheme was brought in to safeguard the car manufacturing industry and protect demand in its vast supply chain, a tech scrappage scheme also has the potential to boost the fast-growing UK tech and robotics sector. Businesses that could benefit include Tharsus, the Blyth-based robotics company that supplies Ocado’s automated warehouse, which is now one of Europe’s fastest growing technology firms.

While individual businesses know the products that are right for them, a tech scrappage scheme can and should promote world class British engineering and high-end manufacturing by creating more demand.

Every UK business could benefit from upgrading technology and IT, but key to the success of the car scrappage scheme was incentivising people into the new car market by making them more affordable. To be eligible, the car had to be at least ten years old and many of those taking part in the scheme would never before have bought a new car. The same must be implemented for a tech scrappage scheme. The Government needs to target the least productive SMEs that have never before invested substantially into the latest robotics, software, automation or information technology.

Research published last year based on a survey of 2000 business owners showed that 46 per cent of small business owners believe technology is more important to their business than people. Just as we incentivised car owners into the market, a new scrappage scheme will give SMEs the confidence to make the tech upgrades their businesses need.

There would be environmental gains too. Just as polluting cars were taken off the road through scrappage, businesses would have the opportunity to replace diesel-fuelled machinery with cleaner and more energy efficient alternatives.

As our country bounces back from Coronavirus, and the focus shifts from health emergency to economic recovery, the Government must continue to focus on not only supporting businesses in the short term but arming our businesses to be ready for the long term impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Our economic recovery must be both green and digital – a scrappage scheme for IT, tech and machinery achieves both goals.

This is the third in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.