Echoes of Tony Blair in Cameron’s “big society”, but . . .

. . . at least he has a Big Idea and his pet philosophy is to be turned into action plans for Whiteh

After two months of doom and gloom from the coalition, David Cameron has today tried to give voters something to smile about. His invitation to join the government of Britain that he used during the election campaign is now to be turned into a programme of action, or structural reform plans, for every Whitehall department.

Cameron doesn't like systems of bureaucratic accountability, nor targets, nor performance indicators. So instead of targets, his structural reform plans will include specific deadlines for specific action. Sounds like a target to me!

I wonder what happens when a deadline for action doesn't get met? Apparently, these will bring democratic accountability and create the structures that put people in charge. So if the government fails to meet its specific deadlines, we can vote it out? Doesn't sound so radical when you put it like that.

Maybe senior civil servants will be sacked? Without performance indicators, maybe pigs will fly.

Cameron's got a big idea and he's proud of it. Having outlined plans to cut back the state in the name of deficit reduction, he now sees the space for the "big society" to blossom. Today he has shown that his pre-election "heir to Blair" positioning is here to stay, as he argues in favour of competition between organisations providing public services because it's the richest who can opt out while the poorest have to take what they are given. Choice is back.

Cameron even lays claim to Blair's record, saying that the academies are transforming education results and foundation hospitals are bringing the very best care to the people who need it most. Yet this is the reform agenda that Ed Balls has said led to the impression that Labour was against hard-working public servants. Lest we forget Blair's forces of conservatism speech and the wreckers of reform briefings.

More importantly, Cameron's call for more independence and more freedom as an automatic mechanism for raising standards across the board rewrites the history of Labour's second term, a time when public spending and capital investment were rising year on year. New Labour at its best was always a combination of investment and reform. Building Schools for the Future was an investment programme that complemented academy freedoms and both were used by the education department to negotiate change with local authorities.

The big political challenge during deficit reduction is to articulate a credible reform agenda that can operate in an age of austerity. Today, Cameron didn't produce a list of private and third-sector suppliers who have agreed to provide public services on a payment-by-results basis. That was the test set for Blair when he announced the academies programme.

And perhaps most importantly, if Cameron is going to design the necessity of provider failure in to his competitive system, what happens to the poor -- who can't opt out -- when the services they rely on inevitably fail?

This agenda is as important for Labour's leadership candidates to get to grips with as the issue of deficit reduction, or electoral reform. These three debates look like they will define politics over the next year. And in an age of new politics, Labour's new leader will need something new to say about how New Labour has moved on.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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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.