Relaunch? What relaunch?

Cameron and Clegg failed to offer anything new as they fought back after Thursday's local election b

As relaunches go, this was anything but drastic. Following the hammering that both their parties got in the local elections on Thursday, David Cameron and Nick Clegg chose the suitably austere setting of a Basildon factory to reaffirm their mission, but they had little new to offer.

 

While the setting was a far cry from the (in)famous rose garden, the words were not. The pair said that the economy was in a far worse state “than anyone thought” when they took over, and that they would do “whatever it takes” to get it back on track.

 

Cameron reiterated that deficit reduction would continue to be the coalition’s “guiding task”. He used several phrases that will be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to politics over the last two years. The nation’s credit card is “maxed out”; you can’t solve debt with more debt; welfare should reward people “who do the right thing”. All of which begs the question: what exactly has changed?

 

ITV’s Chris Ship was on hand to ask exactly that question.  Cameron said that they would focus on the things that matter the most. Heading the list was – you guessed it – the economy. He said that the main focus for him would be “what we can do to get our economy moving”. But while he acknowledged the problems with living standards and jobs, there were no new measures, no shift of focus on offer. Clegg added that the coalition would redouble its efforts to govern for the whole country after taking a beating in local elections in Scotland, Wales and the north.

 

That takes us to the crux of the issue: this wasn't about policy, it was an attempt to show that the coalition is in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters. Suffering in the polls and struggling to recover in the eyes of the public from George Osborne's toxic Budget, this was intended to show that the government is listening.

 

But it is hard to see how anyone could be reassured by today’s appearance. Blaming the recession of 2008 for all the problems of governance is starting to sound hollow in 2012. As my colleague George Eaton pointed out earlier today, the government’s commitment to deficit reduction above all else has in fact led to higher than expected borrowing. The two leaders did not even put a new spin on old ideas, let alone consider new ideas. Don’t hold your breath for an economic Plan B.
 

Desperate times desperate measures in Essex, 8th May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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.