Balls has got the Tories on the run

The energetic shadow chancellor is challenging the coalition's missteps at every turn.

The battle over the appropriateness of the coalition's economic policy has truly commenced and the amateurs are no longer dominating. A professional economist has arrived on the scene in the form of the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, whose energetic interventions, as I suspected they would, are beginning to put coalition ministers on the back foot. Ed is highly effective and is challenging the coalition's missteps at every turn. His alternative strategy is to cut the deficit more slowly and not to compromise growth.

The shadow chancellor's Budget broadcast seemed particularly on point and contained a big apology. Balls agreed that regulation should have been tougher but: "Every government in the world got that wrong -- and I'd like to say sorry for the part that I and the last Labour government played in that." And he rightly pointed out that the Tories are not innocent, as they continually argued for even lighter regulation.

Ed had several sound bites that will surely have some resonance with the general public. "Our economy, which was working, has now ground to a halt." "By cutting too far and too fast, George Osborne isn't solving the problem -- he is in danger of making it worse." "But George Osborne is going too far and too fast and we're paying the price in lost jobs and slower growth." "So I fear that George Osborne's plan won't just hurt, it won't work." This counterattack seems to be working: at PMQs last week, an obviously rattled David Cameron snapped angrily that Balls is "the most annoying person in modern politics". Ed is obviously getting to the Prime Minister. Good. That means our shadow chancellor is doing his job.

Of particular interest are the claims made by Chancellor Osborne that the OECD is a big fan of his policies. He even referred to a letter he received from the right-wing boss of the OECD, Angel Gurria, in which he said that "while this budget contains hard measures, we are convinced that they are unavoidable in the short term to pave the way for a stronger recovery. By sticking to the fiscal consolidation plan set out last year, the United Kingdom will continue along the road towards stability."

Interestingly, today, in its interim assessment of the G7 economies, the OECD made clear that it thinks that the UK economy will grow more slowly than any other G7 economy except Japan, which has just been hit by tempest and flood. The OECD also revised their forecast for Q2 2011 from 1.3 per cemt to 1 per cent on an annualised basis. At the same time, it upgraded its forecasts for many G7 economies, predicting second-quarter growth in the US, France and Germany of 3.4 per cent, 2.8 per cent and 2.3 per cent, respectively. If the policies are so great, how come the OECD lowered their forecast for growth in the UK but raised it in all the other OECD countries that are not implementing austerity? I suspect Ed may well be picking up on this rather glaring contradiction.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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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.