At first glance the numbers seem incredible, but there they are in black and white, courtesy of the Office for National Statistics. The poorest car-owning households in the UK spend at least 27% of their weekly disposable income on buying and running a vehicle.
Scaling up the figures, this suggests that some 800,000 of the least-wealthy homes in the country are mired in transport poverty. If we are concerned, rightly, about fuel poverty, then we should be extremely worried about this.
The previously unpublished data, collected as part of the Family Spending survey, show that of a maximum total weekly expenditure of £167, these households spend £44 on purchasing and operating costs related to a vehicle.
£16 of this is used to buy petrol and diesel, another £8.30 goes on insurance.
For those families who regard it so important to run a car that they are willing to make an outlay of such staggering proportions – and we have always argued that for most of us car use is an absolute necessity – it is clear that every rise in costs merely adds to an already mammoth burden.
Yet for many, what choice is there? In metropolitan London people might be well served with buses, tubes, railways and taxis – but out of the capital, for most people, most of the time, the car is public transport. It is what most of us, rich and poor alike, rely on to access vital services. The difference between groups is that while owning and running a car is merely a financial headache for most, for a significant minority it is an economic nightmare, the proportions of which this data reveals.
Surely if there was a viable alternative (convenient and reasonably priced) then people would take it. To suggest that people happily pay 27% of their income to have a car because they are in any way addicted seems farfetched. They must do it because there is no option.
It is true to say that in real terms buying a vehicle has fallen slightly over the past decade, yet replacing a car is often a discretionary spend, running it is not. People have to buy fuel. They have to insure their vehicle. They have to tax and MOT it. And all these costs have risen far above the rate of inflation.
When the Chancellor makes his Budget statement on March 20th he would be well served by looking at this official data. In a way it doesn’t matter whether the figures are completely accurate or not; whether it is 27% of income that goes on car ownership, or 37% or 17%. All are of such large proportions as to be of concern.
Fuel costs are clearly only part of the equation, but it is a significant part. We would hope George Osborne remembers this when he makes his next pronouncement on the level of duty.