Osborne's ring fence will be made of cheese wire

Power to break up the banks.

So Osborne is going to "reset the banking system". A difficult thing to do with trust between Westminster and the banks at an all time low. How is he going to do it?

Well, first there's going to be a ring-fence: but it's to be not so much electrified as made of cheese wire - if banks don't respect it, regulators will be able to break them up.

It's not just about the fence though - he also plans to make the banking sector more competitive by making it easier to switch bank accounts, and by introducing a new regulator who'll aim to help out new competitors who want to enter the game. There are also talks over how consumer power can be increased, to hold the banks in check.

There is a plus side for the banks: the leverage ratio won't be changed beyond 1:33, but as might be expected, they have not taken kindly to the news:

Anthony Browne, the head of the British Bankers' Association said:

This will create uncertainty for investors, making it more difficult for banks to raise capital which will ultimately mean that banks will have less money to lend to businesses.

"What banks and business need is regulatory certainty so that banks can get on with what they want to do, which is help the economy grow. This decision will damage London’s attractiveness as a global financial centre.

"Uncertainty" isn't really the issue though - banks have been under changing regulation since 2008. The main problem for the banks will now be flexibility, according to Credit Suisse analysts (via FT Alphaville):

Reducing options to transfer capital and funding – As we understand it, banks will be under tight scrutiny to implement strictly a ring-fence. This will clearly limit the flexibility for banks when setting-up their ring-fence plans and limit options to transfer capital and funding. Although this is hard to estimate at this stage, this could increase the overall costs of the reform for the industry. We currently do not have an impact in our estimates.

If ring-fence is to work, it needs to be enforced - but as banks make their money by finding their way around such restrictions, a truly impenetrable fence'll cost. Here is a summary of the estimated hits to the economy via FT Alphaville:

Estimates costs from implementation – The draft legislation published in October 2012 highlighted the following costs for the broader industry and economy: (i) on-going costs of £2-5bn per annum, which compares to our total profit £26.1bn for the five listed UK banks in 2014E; (ii) one-off transitional costs of £1.5-2.5bn; (iii) negative GDP impact of 0.04-0.1%; (iv) reduced tax receipts of £150-400mn (this assumes all bank costs are passed onto the consumer); and (v) a reduction in the value of the government’s shareholdings in RBS and Lloyds Banking Group in the range of £2bn to £5bn relative to a ‘do nothing’ baseline scenario (compares to current value of £45.1bn).

If banks don't respect the fence, regulators will be able to break them up. Photograph: Getty Images
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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.