We should be upset that the most extravagant social event of the year has been cancelled

ARK galas can raise as much as £26m in one night. Why are we storming the Bastille?

“It was all getting to feel a little bit 1788 and all that”. So said somebody connected with the opulent ARK gala in this week’s Financial Times. In one fell swoop, a symbolic link was drawn between Louis XVI’s pre-revolution balls at the Palace of Versailles and the annual ARK charity gala – thought of as the most extravagant social event of the year – that has this year been cancelled.

Just to give you a taste of this extravagance, previous ARK galas have been hosted in Kensington Palace Gardens and London Waterloo’s former Eurostar terminal, which was decked out with mature trees to resemble a woodland grove. Guests – mostly made up of "A-Listers" and financiers – have been entertained by Madonna, Bill Clinton and Prince, while served Krug and lobster. And the auction is another thing entirely – no homemade hampers here – prizes have ranged from a private dinner with Mikhail Gorbachev and yoga with Sting to a week on a private superyacht.

All the money from the gala – which has topped £100 m over the years – is donated to ARK (Absolute Return for Kids), a charity founded by Arpad “Arki” Busson, one of the country’s most successful hedge fund managers.

So it is little wonder that such an annual ostentatious gaiety has been cancelled. Such irresponsible illustrious in an age of austerity. Displays of excess while the remainder of the country is bordering on recession, claim most of the news stories, is not a good image.

But this is ignoring the wider point, which is raising money for charity is hard enough in these times. There is a simple rule: the more extravagant the party, the more money is raised. Besides, persuading wealthy individuals to part with their cash is no easy feat, so what if it takes Krug, Clinton and Madonna to entice wallets and purses to open.

In this, the hedge funds are leading the way. Chris Hohn is one of the UK’s most generous philanthropists having donated over £800m; his Children's Investment Fund Foundation receives direct grants from his hedge fund of the same name. Two other philanthropic arms of hedge funds – Tudor Investment Corporation and Tiger Management – accounted for about £110m in 2010 according to research by the Alternative Investment Management Association.

Then there are the parties, which – as the ARK gala has shown – can raise as much as £26m in one night. So, regardless of the 1 per cent vs. austerity, these types of events are crucial for charities and, unlike 1788, there will be no storming of the Bastille.

Kate Middleton at last year's ARK gala. Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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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.