People are finally spending more on their cards

Is this the sign we've been waiting for?

I may just have spoken to the most optimistic and cheery senior UK-based banker for many a year.

Dave Chan, CEO of Barclaycard Europe, is not just chirpy about the prospects for UK plc; he says that there is evidence going back to the second quarter of the year that we may have turned a corner. In short, people are spending more on their cards.

In May and June, "nominal spend" – that is expenditure taking account of inflation – of Barclaycard cardholders rose for four months in a row for the first time in three years. Given the importance of consumer spending as an engine of growth and with expenditure now on a gentle upward trend, we may indeed be witnessing the recovery starting to gain momentum.

That is however only part of the story. The clever number-crunchers at Barclays have been analysing just what exactly we are using our cards to purchase. There are signs that discretionary expenditure is rising including purchases such as foreign holidays Perhaps the real clincher to back up Chan’s optimism relates to card expenditure on home improvements.

In the past couple of months he says that there has been a big uplift in expenditure in this sector.

Meantime, UK unemployment remains stubbornly high at 7.8 per cent. If the Bank of England forecasts for GDP growth are accurate – and here it has a decidedly mixed track record – we will only enjoy growth of 1.4 per cent this year and 2.3 per cent next year.

For those of us old enough to have lived through economic upturns following past recessions, such relatively low rates of growth are way below the growth levels witnessed during the Thatcher second term and Blair’s first term.

The chances of UK unemployment falling below 7 per cent and the trigger for a change in UK monetary policy – that means higher interest rates to you and me – is slim in the next three years. That inevitably will impact the prospects for the share prices of the major UK banks.

As for home improvements major players, such as B&Q’s parent Kingfisher, there may be renewed interest in how its share price performs. Analysts following Kingfisher are divided with six rating the stock a sell, seven say hold with 13 recommending a buy.

Time will tell if Chan’s grounds for optimism are well founded.

I am glad to report, that at no time during the course of a lengthy conversation did he use the phrase “green shoots” (Norman Lamont circa the 1991 recession).

A handful of credit cards. Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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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.