Convicted: Max Clifford arrives at Southwark Crown Court ahead of his sentencing, 2 May. Photo: Getty
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Failing the teachers, misjudging Max Clifford and Thomas Piketty’s bestselling shelf-filler

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Ann Maguire, the teacher stabbed to death by a pupil at a Catholic secondary school in Leeds, was dedicated, devout, patient, caring and inspiring, “the mother of the school”, always striving for “excellence”. Those are just a few of the descriptions used by newspapers. And I do not question for one moment that Maguire deserved them.

That is not how newspapers and politicians, particularly those of a right-wing persuasion, normally write about state school teachers. More often, we are told that, enslaved to left-wing ideology, teachers instruct children in atheism and immorality, tolerate low standards and don’t work hard enough. We shall hear many suggestions about who or what was to “blame” for Maguire’s tragic death. (My answer would be the boy who used the knife but nobody wants to leave it at that.) Permissive liberal values, welfare benefits, violent video games, social media and the abolition of corporal punishment will, most likely, be among the alleged culprits.

Nobody will mention the routine denigration of teachers by politicians and the media. Yet that must bear some responsibility for the growing instances of both pupils and parents refusing to accept teachers’ authority and sometimes resorting to violence to make their point.

 

Double shock

Unearthing journalists’ faulty predictions and poor judgements is always enjoyable. To my delight, I once discovered that the Sun, in a fawning interview in 1973, described Gary Glitter (later imprisoned for sexual offences against children) as “the rock’n’roll daddy who makes little girls ask to see more of his hairy chest”. So before anybody else finds out, I will reveal that, during my editorship, the NS ran an article under the headline “Max Clifford is a nice chap shock”. We reported that Clifford, who has just been convicted of sexually abusing four girls, was a man of “private modesty . . . committed to public service” whose “personal life has been a paragon of virtue”. Since this was in 2000, we don’t even have the excuse that it was the 1970s.

 

Automatic for the people

Since I love travelling on trains, I should be delighted that the bill for the HS2 rail link sailed through its Commons second reading. But I keep hearing about driverless cars. Google’s prototype has driven 700,000 miles around California and several manufacturers envisage such vehicles being on the market by 2020. Audi has demonstrated a car that drops you off, parks itself and returns when summoned by an app.

People opt for rail because they can read, work, eat, make calls or gaze at scenery while travelling. Driverless cars will reduce those advantages and, I should think, particularly appeal to the expense-account executives at whom HS2 is mainly aimed. Has anybody in the government thought about this?

 

Undermining aristocrats

Visiting relatives in Derbyshire, my wife and I took a detour north of Sheffield to Wentworth Woodhouse, recently opened to the public. It is sometimes called “the Buckingham Palace of the north” but it would perhaps be better to call the Queen’s metropolitan pad the Wentworth Woodhouse of the south. Most of the house, covering 2.5 acres, was built by 18th-century Whigs. It eventually passed to the Fitzwilliams who made fortunes out of the Barnsley coal seam that their estates happened to straddle.

The guides speak venomously of Emanuel Shinwell’s role in the house’s decline. As Labour’s fuel and power minister in the late 1940s, he ordered open cast mining in the Wentworth gardens right up to the walls of the house, undermining its foundations. As the coal was of poor quality and the Fitzwilliams were considered relatively enlightened mine owners, Shinwell was (and is) accused of vandalism and class hatred.

I’m with Shinwell. He showed that he didn’t fear upsetting those who had previously been the nation’s unquestioned rulers. A bit of rough justice was necessary to break centuries-old habits of British deference. I wish Labour’s present leaders had a fraction of Shinwell’s spirit.

 

Greek to me

One effect of the internet is that, with sufficient hype, a book can become a bestseller before anyone has thought about whether they actually want to read it. I think this has happened to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. If you picked it up in a bookshop, you would soon realise that it’s a dense economics tome, with graphs, equations featuring Greek letters and 76 pages of notes. On the net, you just click. I fear that, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Piketty’s book will have many more buyers than readers. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.