Will Labour kill Lords reform?

The party is tempted to give Clegg another bloody nose.

If, as seems likely, as many as 100 Conservative MPs rebel over House of Lords reform, the bill's fate will depend on Labour. For Ed Miliband, this creates a political dilemma. Should he exploit an opportunity to maximise coalition tensions or should he fulfil Labour's previous commitment to an elected upper chamber? The answer, it appears, is that he will do both.

Today's Guardian reports that Labour will reject any timetable for the bill, potentially allowing MPs to talk it into the ground. However, it will do so on the basis that the proposed bill would not create a 100 per cent elected chamber (20 per cent of members, including Church of England bishops, would be appointed) and that it would not be put to a referendum. This, Labour will say, is another "miserable little compromise" from Nick Clegg.

Both David Cameron and Clegg have insisted that a referendum is not required since all three of the main parties endorsed Lords reform in their manifestos. But Labour can point to the fact that its manifesto also included a commitment to a referendum. Until recently, the British electorate had little experience of referenda. The AV referendum was only the second to be held on a national level (the first was the vote on EU membership in 1975). But that vote - and those on directly-elected mayors - have set a precedent. Once the possibility of a referendum is raised, it is hard to argue that the people should be denied a say.

The Lib Dems, however, will say that this is merely another example of Labour's constitutional conservatism (as previously demonstrated during the AV referendum). If the choice is between an 80 per cent elected house and a fully appointed one, then it would be shameful for Labour to side with the status quo. The priority is to establish the principle of election. A fully-elected chamber is a fight for another day.

Were Labour to sabotage reform all the same, then, as Rafael wrote recently, "an important symbolic threshold" will have been crossed. For the first time, on a matter of substance, Miliband's party will have sided with the Conservatives against the Lib Dems. But for Labour, which is increasingly confident of winning a majority at the next election, there may now be little incentive to woo Clegg's party.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk towards the State Opening of Parliament on 9 May, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.