A positive message is the key to stopping Salmond

Darling is right to put the positive case for the Union.

The title of the "no" to Scottish independence campaign - Better Together - is indicative of the group's determination to make a positive case for the Union, rather than merely a negative case against secession. Alistair Darling, who launched the campaign in Edinburgh this morning, rightly rejected the argument that an independent Scotland would be economically unviable. Rather, he pointed out that both Scotland and England have more to lose than to gain from a break-up:

The truth is we can have the best of both worlds: a strong Scottish Parliament and a key role in a strong and secure United Kingdom.

It was not the case that Scotland could not survive as a separate, independent state, he said. "Of course it could. This is about what unites us, not about what divides us.

He added:

We make a positive case for staying together. A positive case that celebrates not just what makes us distinctive but also celebrates what we share.

We put the positive case for staying together. We are positive about our links with the rest of the United Kingdom, through families and friendships, through trade and through shared political, economical and cultural institutions.

We're positive about being a proud nation within a larger state and the far wider range of opportunities for our people that this creates.

We're positive about all of the identities that we share - Scottish, British, European, citizens of the world - and don't see the need to abandon any of them.

The other point that Better Together is keen to make is that the version of independence offered by Alex Salmond is increasingly indistinguishable from the status quo. An independent Scotland would retain the Queen as its head of state, the pound as its currency, and apply for EU and, perhaps, Nato membership. As Jason asked in a recent column, what kind of independence is this?

Having abandoned  his previous enthusiasm for euro membership (Salmond quipped in 2009 that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and that the euro was viewed more "favourably), the SNP leader now favours a "currency union" with the UK. Yet as Darling pointed out this morning, monetary union leads remorselessly to fiscal union (as the euro crisis has demonstrated). In other words, Scotland would end up back where it started. Why change so much (separate embassies, separate armed forces, a separate civil service) and yet so little?

Darling had little to say about the possibility of further devolution but this is a subject the campaign will need to address in the future. As Douglas Alexander has previously said, "we must be open-minded on how we can improve devolution's powers, including fiscal powers, but be resolute in our rejection of separation". So long as Salmond can spend money without having to raise it, the SNP will remain a formidable force.

Meanwhile, it appears that Salmond and the UK government are no closer to reaching agreement on the wording of the independence referendum. Cameron is still refusing to offer legal approval for Salmond's plan to hold a two-question ballot (one on independence and one on "devo max") in autumn 2014, a few weeks after the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

The SNP leader has now issued an ultimatum (£), threatening to hold his own poll on election day in 2015 if he fails to win legal approval for a 2014 referendum. This would be an advisory vote designed to provide Salmond with a clear mandate to negotiate for independence. It would be open to challenge in the courts but, as I've previously noted, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has suggested that the UK government would not launch that challenge itself. If the referendum is to be held before 2015, the two sides now have just a few months to reach an agreement.

Former Chancellor Alistair Darling launched the Better Together campaign today in Edinburgh. 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.