You couldn’t make it up. After a decade of lecturing us about the evils of using personal transport, and the need to go by bus train or cycle, we now have government Ministers wanting to find ways for us to buy more cars. Furthermore, they want us to do this on borrowed money.
I had some sympathy for Peter Mandelson, the newly appointed Business Secretary, coming into the economic mess we have been placed in. (That should wind up a few of my regulars!) In a recent radio interview he was asked about government support for the motor industry. As Industry Secretary he had to appear sympathetic and understanding of their present plight. As a former EU Commissioner, probably freshly briefed by Competition officials in his own department, he had to be very careful not to imply the state would start giving the motor trade anti competitive subsidies.
He picked himself intelligently through these competing pitfalls. He stressed that the motor industry was not seeking subsidy. It was, he said seeking loans on commercial terms to tide it over. He also stressed that its big problem was a sharp reduction in demand, so the best kind of help might prove to be financial assistance to those offering loans to car buyers. He was lucky that the interviewer did not ask him if the industry wanted commercial loans why did it need to talk to the state about it? Nor did they ask him if this meant helping finance companies with state money so they could offer large loans to well paid people to buy large cars.
I am sure the irony was not lost on him. The Labour government spent its first ten years in power trying to make motoring ever more expensive and difficult, with congestion charges, higher parking charges, big increases in VED and increases in petrol tax. Suddenly realisation dawns that UK motor manufacturing is an important part of total UK manufacturing. The dreadful figures for industrial and manufacturing output in the closing months of 2008, taking the annual figure to a fall of over 7%, owes quite a lot to weakness in the motor trades. Makers of prestige high performance cars have been badly hit. Clearly today in government the Business department has more clout than the Environmental one.
I am happier with the government’s latest stance, that cars are an important part of modern life, and successful manufacturing of ever more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly personal transport is part of what we should be doing as a nation. It is not going to be easy from here leading the revival of this sector, as it is one of the least painful personal and company budget decisions to make to defer the replacement of your old car or to forgo the pruchase of an extra one.