Osborne's council tax freeze is an old announcement

The Chancellor promised to freeze council tax for two years in his 2008 conference speech.

You could be forgiven for thinking that George Osborne has pulled a rabbit out of a hat with his pledge to freeze council tax for a second year running. Indeed, most of the papers lead on the story this morning and treat it as a new announcement. "Tories find £805m for council tax bill freeze," says the Times, adding that Osborne, who will address the Conservative conference today, has offered "comfort" amid the "austerity drive".

But the truth is that this is merely a restatement of existing policy. Osborne first promised a two-year council tax freeze in his speech to the 2008 Conservative conference. "I can tell you today that the next Conservative Government will freeze your Council Tax for at least two years," he said.

The policy went on to feature in the Tories' 2010 election manifesto and the coalition agreement included a pledge to "freeze council tax in England for at least one year", and to "seek to freeze it for a further year."

With his growth strategy under attack from Tory backbenchers, it's no surprise that Osborne is talking up this measure. But it is indicative of the weakness of his plan that, with growth stagnant (the economy has grown by just 0.2 per cent in the last nine months), the best he can offer is a re-announced £805m council tax freeze. Families paying an extra £450 a year in VAT (owing to Osborne's decision to raise the tax to a record high of 20 per cent) will gain just £72 from the measure.

Were Osborne truly determined to stimulate growth, he would have announced an emergency tax cut such as a temporary reduction in VAT (as advocated by Ed Balls). A VAT cut would boost consumer spending, lower inflation, protect retail jobs and increase real wages. When Alistair Darling reduced VAT to 15 per cent during the financial crisis, consumers spent £9bn more than they would otherwise have done. A VAT cut today would be a similarly effective fiscal stimulus. As Boris Johnson wisely observed in his Telegraph column in July, "[I]f we were to cut taxes now, it might be best to start with VAT to get people shopping again." Osborne's decision to raise VAT (a measure he described as "permanent") by 2.5 per cent to an all-time high of 20 per cent automatically knocked 0.3 per cent off annual growth (OBR figures).

A council tax freeze will do little to stimulate growth and little to relieve families facing the biggest fall in living standards since the 1920s. We'll get a better idea of Osborne's plan when he addresses the Tories at 11:20am today (we'll be live blogging his speech on The Staggers). But so far, all the signs are that he will offer little to combat the growth crisis facing Britain.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.