Welsh Government ministers and officials so enjoyed their time in France this summer that they’ve decided to import some contemporary French culture of their own. That, at least, is one conclusion we might draw from the recent consultation on introducing selective road tolls on two of Wales’s main arterial roads (which many fear will be the thin end of a road-pricing wedge) the M4 and the A470… a consultation which the BBC helpfully drew attention to three days after it had closed:
“The survey discussed a toll for petrol cars registered before 2006 and diesels plated before September 2015… Respondents were told that pollution levels at the two areas under discussion were above legal limits, so the Welsh government ‘has been assessing potential solutions and packages of measures to improve air quality and protect the health of people’… Respondents… were presented with pricing options ranging from £3 to £8 for cars and from £6 to £12.50 for light goods vehicles.”
For anyone who suffers profound amnesia or has been living under a rock since 2018, it was precisely this form of regressive environmental tax which triggered the “Mouvement des gilets jaunes,” which forced the Macron administration into a humiliating climb down (Welsh ministers take note).
One reason why Welsh ministers may believe they are on firmer ground than is actually the case, is that they still deal in averages and still base tax and spending decisions on highly financialised GDP figures. In the UK, the average wage, for example, is inflated by a handful of extremely well remunerated individuals at the very top; so that it is more than £6,000 higher than the median wage. And Wales, of course, has more than its fair share of the 50 percent lowest earners. At the same time, GDP figures are over-reliant on transactions which were only made possible through the issuance of unrepayable debt. Despite the appearance of rising standards of living, the bottom half of us are worse off today than we were in 2008. Moreover, as Tim Morgan points out, this causes governments to overestimate the ability of their population to absorb new taxes:
“Where consumers are concerned, the adverse effects of this process are likely to be exacerbated by a rise in the proportion of prosperity taken in tax. Governments’ failure to understand the energy basis of economic activity lead them to measure the affordability of taxation against GDP.
“On this conventional basis, the incidence of taxation worldwide has hardly varied at all over the past twenty years, remaining at or very close to 31% between 1999 and 2019. Unfortunately, and as we‘ve seen, GDP has become an ever less meaningful measure of the value of economic output over time.
“What this in turn means is that the incidence of taxation, when measured against prosperity, has risen relentlessly, from a global average of 32% in 1999 to 49% in 2019. On current projections, this is set to rise to 56% by 2025…
“SEEDS analysis indicates that taxation absorbed 67% of French prosperity last year, compared with 53% back in 2004. For the average French citizen, this means that a comparatively modest decline of 6.2% (€1,910) in his or her overall prosperity has been exacerbated by a €3,010 increase in taxation, leaving disposable (‘left in your pocket’) prosperity 34% (€4,920) lower in 2019 than it was in 2004.”
In many ways, there is a strong similarity between conditions in South Wales and those in France which led to the Yellow Vests protests. For low paid workers in France, housing costs in the employment-providing cities had become unaffordable. And so many workers moved to cheaper properties in the hinterland and spent what remained of their income on commuting. It didn’t help that in the years when this migration was occurring, governments were encouraging the purchase of diesel cars in the mistaken belief that they were better for the environment… so that a tax on diesel vehicles was never going to be well received.
Wales has a population of some 3.2 million people. Roughly two-thirds of these live in the ex-industrial south and in the south coast cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. As was the case in France, property prices – inflated by a professional class based next to the city universities, together with a massive influx of students – raised housing costs and caused lower paid workers to find housing in the ex-industrial coalfield towns; commuting – alongside much of the indigenous population – into the cities for work. A particularly heavy volume of commuters currently turn the A470 into a car park during morning and evening rush hour. Nor does public transport provide much of an alternative (although electrification might bring some relief) since rush hour trains are usually packed nose to armpit anyway.
To a Member of the Senedd (Parliament) on £69,273 plus expenses, a minister on £105,701 or the First Minister himself on £147,983, an extra £8 each way to drive into work will barely be noticed. Indeed, it is very likely that this will be covered by expenses anyway. But to any Welsh worker earning less than the Wales median wage of £27,965 – and by the Welsh Government’s own admission, “Median gross weekly earnings in Wales were the third lowest amongst the 12 UK countries and English regions.” – the additional £8 a day (£1,920 a year) is likely to make having a low-paid job unaffordable for those on the lowest wages.
Some of the comments on the BBC report of the consultation though, suggest a backlash of sorts is on the cards:
“I never saw this survey and I live near the A470. Why retroactively toll only certain roads? This will do very little with the issue of pollution but instead target those who use the roads everyday. Instead, we will go alternate routes (if even available!) and cause pollution in areas near homes.”
“Classic. Penalise those who cannot afford a new lower polluting vehicle.”
“We already pay increased road tax on older cars and how is paying road tolls for older cars going to help climate change?…”
“Incentivise not penalise. Extra costs hit hardest those that have no options, so at the very minimum the goal should be not to make it worse for them (and ideally open up options).”
Incentivising may be easier to say than to do, of course. And in any case, this small Welsh proposal is just one of a raft of eye-watering pseudo-solutions to climate change which are about to be visited upon us, including replacing household gas boilers at £2,000 to 3,000 a pop, and switching us from central heating to inferior heat pumps at £10,000 to 15,000 a time. Then there will be the increasingly unaffordable electricity bills as we are forced to pay for the subsidies doled out to nuclear power plants and windfarms. Indeed, if even a fraction of the current hare-brained scheme for reaching “net zero” is implemented, half of the population is going to be resorting to foodbanks!
Whether the Welsh will prove to be as bolshie as their French counterparts is a moot point. Morale was badly crushed after the miners’ strike a generation ago. And Welsh voters have tended to compliantly back neoliberalism longer than most other parts of the UK. On the other hand, when Macron introduced his “green tax” on diesel there was no indication that it would result in years of bitter protest across the country.
As the Welsh Government returns from its long summer holiday, they may want to consider that if they continue to implement policies which disproportionately impact the poor, they may be importing something far more violent than wine and cheese from our French neighbours.
As you made it to the end…
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