Cyprus may backtrack over the deal - but the damage has been done

Savers will be thoroughly spooked.

It's a shock to everyone - Cyprus stumbles, and Europe cuts the cord.

The Cyprus deal could be in the process of renegotiation, according to Reuters, but here it is as it stands: Cyprus has imposed a tax on all depositors down to the smallest - with a levy of 6.75 per cent on savings up to €100,000, and 9.9 per cent for those over-€100k. This may be legal, but it goes violently against the spirit of the new banking system everyone has been striving for since the 2008 financial crisis - where those with no responsibility are protected from the losses of those who take risks. These ideas were based on solid reason - if a gamble doesn't pay off, the gambler should pay - a principle that should result in banks controlling their own risks. To fly in the face of this seems like a backward step.

For Cypriot savers, it's too late for action  - you can withdraw as much money as you like, but charges are now fixed. This will be particularly galling for those with deposits up to €100,000 which were guaranteed under EU law, should the bank go under. The fact that the new deal is presented as a tax on these savings will be seen as a sneaky manipulation of a loophole in the law.

Another slap in the face to ordinary investors comes from President Nicos Anastasiades - who claimed yesterday that there was no alternative to hitting small depositors. This is not true - as there could simply be larger cuts over the €100,000 threshold. The 6.75 per cent:9.9 per cent ratio seems terrifyingly arbitrary.

This was the choice European leaders had over Cyprus: sovereign restructuring or losses for bank creditors. The second course was chosen - but it has been done in the worst possible way. They will not restructure the banks immediately, nor will it bail in unsecured senior bondholders. They will however damage the savings of ordinary people in a way that is not only immoral but also unwise - how keen will people be to deposit money in the bank now?

And there is the other problem. While the actual tax hit to ordinary people is much smaller than other hits resulting from bank bailouts, (British savers have been relieved of more than £43bn since the beginning of the financial crisis, which was used to prop up struggling financial institutions) it is the raid-like way this has been managed that is so psychologically damaging to Cypriot depositors. Even if, as Reuters suggests, the deal is changed so that small depositors (under €100,000) are not hit, the risk that come Tuesday a mob will descend on the banks and withdraw every last euro from their accounts is considerable.

The other undo-able damage of course will be political - the credibility of policymakers in the IMF and eurozone is getting ever closer to zero.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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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.