And I'm not making this up...

Instead of pandering to tabloid mythology why can't May, Cameron and co just be honest?

Sometimes I like to think of a world in which everything that's said at the Conservative Party conference is true. Imagine that world, for a moment. It's a world where rich people are nice, and businesses are trying their hardest to make the world a better place but are constantly thwarted by pesky red tape.

It's a world where the poor are grasping and bad, and people who aren't doing very well have ended up there by not trying hard enough and not getting on their bikes.

It's also a world where political correctness has gone mad. But you can't even say mad nowadays, you have to say "mindfully challenged" because otherwise the Brussels bureaucrats, and I'm not making this up, won't be able to deport racists back to where they came from because of their so-called human rights, and I saw someone had to wear safety goggles to open a packet of Murray Mints, it was in the papers and everything.

No, I'm getting confused. That was just a silly caricature of things that might be said at the Conservative Party conference; it wasn't what was actually said. However, even though that isn't quite accurate, it's close enough, isn't it? I mean, who cares what actually happened, when you can just tell a story that's got some kind of basis in fact, even if it's not exactly what happened?

When challenged about it, you can get your mates in the press to tell their readers that you're right; and it's not as if anyone on your side cares or not whether you're telling them the truth, as long as it neatly chimes in with their prejudices and expectations.

Well, that's not entirely true either, though. Because not all Tories roared with approval when Theresa May told her since-discredited shaggy moggy tale about a cat that kept someone in the country who shouldn't have been in the country, and how that showed why the Human Rights Act should be consigned Mary Bale-style to the wheelie bin.

Kenneth Clarke, the only Tory it's all right to be fond of if you're a leftie (although if we were allowed dead ones, I'd put Kenny Everett in there) thought it cheapened the debate to mention something that wasn't fundamentally accurate.

Later that same conference, David Cameron came up with a tale about health and safety having literally gone mad when a school tried to order highlighter pens, concocting a daft image of kids having to put on chemical protection suits and stand behind a blast shield just to use them. Was that true? It might have been, I suppose, but it's this kind of anecdotal justification for important policy -- the scrapping of the human rights act here, the relaxation of health and safety regulation there -- that cheapens our political life.

This kind of pandering to tabloid mythology is reminiscent of the black man Cameron met before the election campaign in 2010 who had apparently told him what he wanted to hear about immigration. But we only ever hear anecdotes from people he's spoken to that back him up; he doesn't talk much about the doctor he met, who told him to sod off out of his hospital, does he?

Who knows. Maybe there is a school somewhere that keeps highlighter pens in a safe, because they're so scared of the H&S brigade. Maybe there's a rush of illegal immigrants heading down the pet shop in the belief that it'll prevent their rightful deportation. Maybe some of these anecdotes are true, or grounded in truth. But even if they are, is that justification enough to change things? How about looking beyond the anecdotes, and beyond the farcical exceptions to the rule, and wondering why these bits of legislation are around in the first place?

Why not just be honest? If you don't like the Human Rights Act because you think it gives people too many human rights, then say so. Don't say it's stopping judges from deporting people because they've got cats when it hasn't stopped judges deporting people because they've got cats; that makes you seem childish and the reasons for your lawmaking flimsy.

If you don't like health and safety legislation because it means businesses are annoyed at having to spend money on safeguarding their employees -- and let's face it, if a few manual workers get horribly mutilated or killed, they weren't going to vote Tory anyway -- then don't be shy. Why use these daft anecdotes to get the point across?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.

***

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.