Political sketch: The perks of being PM

Referendum guns are out.

 

One of the perks of being Prime Minister is when you address the House of Commons you always have your back to your own side, providing the perfect answer to those who say you can only tell the truth when it stares you in the eye.

Thus in theory only Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is really able to see just how shifty you are - unless of course you speak.

And this was the mistake that David Cameron made, not for the first time, as he turned up in the chamber to answer charges of confusion and obfuscation over his position on Europe and referenda.

If there is one thing that those members of the Tory Party, who need written permission from their doctors to be out on the streets, hate even more than the Lib-Dems and John Bercow it is Europe - or at least those bits that don’t involve skiing and the French Riviera.

So extra pills were ordered and taken when they heard this weekend that Dave had at last said he was in favour of a referendum.

His conversion bore no relation of course to the plan by former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who qualifies in both the doctors' and recidivist camps to trundle out his referendum guns today.

But as befits a Tory Party in chaos ever since Chancellor George produced the budget-from-hell, more chaos was just around the corner.

Even as the faithful were reading the good news in their Sunday papers Foreign Secretary William Hague was being trundled out himself to say Dave had not meant it.

And so the scene was set for the perfect appearance by Dave in front of a less than happy government party and a delighted opposition.

Missing in action yet again was the back end of the coalition horse, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has taken to displaying his increasing contempt at being treated increasingly with contempt by not turning up.

Earlier he had made it clear that once again unwarned about Dave’s latest attempt for party popularity, he believed the issue (if not himself) irrelevant at the moment.

And so it was a Nick-less Dave who stood to clear the confusion and announced that this was no time for a referendum.

Just to make it quite clear there might be a time - some other time but not this time - and then he moved on to the bankers.

An hour of excruciation followed as Dave equivocated his way through the minefield of his own members egged on by Labour, delighted at another afternoon of car-crash politics.

Ed Miliband had kicked off the sport by accusing the PM of a long-standing position on renegotiation; long standing because it's not getting anywhere.

Dave sweated on, his head looking increasingly big for his hair, as Tory after Tory asked him the one question he could not answer: when?

He had planned to escape after an hour when George would take his place in the dock over Barclays but that took no account of the master of ceremonies at the event, Speaker Bercow. 

He mercilessly let the session run an extra 25 minutes. And it's PMQs again on Wednesday.

 
Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Getty
Show Hide image

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.