PMQs sketch: For Miliband it wasn't as easy as ABC

It sounded as if Ed M's summer nose job had finally kicked in, but it turned out to be just a heavy

It was when a Tory MP suggested that parents should take their children to work during next week's public sector strike that you realised Prime Minister's Questions was just a try-out for the real thing.

There they sat fidgeting, staring off into space, whispering to their pals, ties askew, waiting for the lunch bell, and that was just the Government side of the House. Opposite, equally unruly and even noisier -- as befits their rather ruder upbringing -- the boys and girls from the local comp.

It was meant to be a different day when deep economic matters would be discussed in the run-up to next week's Autumn Statement by the Chancellor, when he will reveal that we are up to our necks in it -- but luckier than the others who are busy swallowing the stuff.

Indeed George was there, chewing on his lip, braced for the inevitable spanking from Labour for his part in the ongoing drama. Just to add to the excitement we had learned earlier in the day that "We-are-all-in-this-together" Dave had just forked out £140,000 to buy a field next to his constituency home without needing any help from his bank manager. What an added bonus for Ed M, who had started off his day by being awarded the phrase of the year prize for inventing "squeezed middle". Surely this was going to be his day.

PMQs kicked off with an early moan from a member of the Government side about next week's strike in what observers thought was just a way of giving Tory MPs a chance to clear their throats before the session started in earnest.

Labour spirits lifted when Ed stood up and launched into his attack on the Government's jobs record. Dave had managed in 18 months what Labour never did in 13 years; push youth unemployment over 1m. As he spoke, he sounded as if his summer nose job had finally kicked, in but as he continued it appeared that it was just a bad cold.

He tried to pin down Dave but even the constant encouragement of Ed B, forever barracking from the sidelines, seemed unable to provide the energy necessary to get a grip on the PM, already a past master in ducking and diving.

Ed threw in his sound bite with the charge that Dave never takes the blame. ABC -- Anyone But Cameron -- he said, but you wondered if his heart was in it. His enthusiasm cannot have been helped by the poll revelation that 18 months on more people still blame Labour than the Coalition for our economic woes.

He tried to hit Dave with another demand for a bankers' bonus tax, this time to help the young unemployed. But the PM swatted him off with a list of nine uses he said Labour had already ear-marked the tax for. "This is a bank tax that likes to say yes", said the PM with all the pleasure of delivering a well-rehearsed line.

Three Tory MPs managed independently -- and no doubt without conferring -- to ask the PM to explain just how wrong, selfish, undemocratic and unrepresentative next week's strike would be. Dave could not agree more, and yes, he does agree with MP Louise Mensch that people should take their kids to work if schools are closed by strikes next week.

When not an MP, Mrs Mensch is a writer of fiction.

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

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

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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.