Why the next BBC boss must be non-political

The BBC needs a visionary director general, not a political placeman.

"Our vision – to be the most creative organisation in the world".

That’s quite a bold and imaginative goal, I would venture. What sort of qualities would you look for in a potential leader of such an organisation?

May I suggest that such a leader would be a visionary. Like some modern day soothsayer, they would understand what we want before we know we want it – a Steve Jobs-type character. They would understand every aspect of how we experience creativity in a digital age, as Larry Page and Sergey Brin so clearly do. And they would deliver creativity for all from the cradle to the grave – perhaps a little like Bob Iger does at Disney.

Now if I was searching for some sort of human chimera that delivers all those qualities, I wouldn’t spend an inordinate amount of time searching for them in and around the Palace of Westminster.

Yet apparently there are a lot of folk who seem to think that’s exactly where the best head of the BBC – for it is the Beeb's official vision that kick-starts this piece - will be found.  And put in those terms, doesn’t that seem frankly ludicrous?

Stuck in the Westminster bubble, politicians on all sides expound the merits of appointing a new director general from one side of the political divide or the other, on the basis that unless a political appointee is made, the corporation will remain hopelessly biased in the opposite direction from that of whichever commentator happens to be writing at the time. I’ve even been told today that the less-than-diamond jubilee coverage is the result of political bias  - "only something run by a lefty could have covered Jubilee celebrations so badly". Oh, come on.

Of course, covering politics is an important cog in the workings of the BBC. And dealing with politicians, in terms of both the BBC Trust (current chairman an ex-chairman of the Conservative Party) and the ultimate arbiter on the licence fee (currently one Jeremy Hunt, at least as I type) is a key aspect of the role.

But is that really what we want in a leader of the BBC – someone who’s good at chewing the fat with the men and women in grey suits? That’s not who’s going to deliver me, as a licence fee payer, the most creative organisation in the world.

And apparently there are tens of thousands of folk who agree with me.

As Caitlin Moran rather neatly put it on Twitter this morning: "the BBC should be run by some sexy rogue pirate who's really the fuck into public remit broadcasting".

You are unlikely to find one of those in SW1.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

A general view of the BBC Television Centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.

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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.