With every fare rise and fee increase, the government decides to defy the inflation hawks

This year and next, a full 0.6pp of inflation will be because of direct government decisions.

Last week, I wrote about how inflation is worst for those who spend a large proportion of their income on essentials. The cost of essentials, defined as food, housing, energy and travel, increased by 3.7 per cent last year, well above CPI's 2.8 per cent increase. Since the recession, essentials have increased in price by more than 33 per cent, while nominal incomes have gone up by just 10 per cent.

A large driver of that increase, however, is the direct effect of government policy. For instance, council tax, road tax and almost all public transport fares are set by the state, as are most of the costs of highly-taxed goods like alcohol, tobacco, fuel and heating and power.

Now, the weekly briefing note produced by Deloitte's Chief Economist, Ian Stewart, makes clear that a similar effect is happening to the headline rate of inflation. Stewart writes:

In its latest Inflation Report, the Bank noted that one of the reasons behind persistently high inflation was higher 'administered and regulated prices', i.e., prices affected by government or regulatory decisions. Of these, a key contributor has been the rising price of education, largely reflecting rises in undergraduate tuition fees. Another contributor is higher domestic energy prices as a result of current climate change and energy policies and further investment into the UK's gas and electricity distribution networks.

According to the Bank, these two drivers have, together, amplified UK inflation by 0.4 percentage points last year and will do so by 0.6 percentage points this year and the next.

The latter reason is something you hear a lot about from inflation hawks, given the frequent coincidence of climate scepticism and fear of inflation; the former, not so much. When it comes down to it, one way to keep inflation low would be to fund essential public services through general taxation or deficit spending, neither of which tend to be routes advocated by inflation hawks.

Stewart also pokes the Bank of England about whether or not it is strictly applying its mandate. Technically, the Bank has only one role: to keep inflation as close to its 2 percentage points target as possible, and certainly within one percentage point either side. But instead, under both Mervyn King and, it is expected, Mark Carney, the bank has refused to take actions to bring down inflation if they would harm growth. Stewart writes:

This approach has led some analysts to point out that the Bank now seems to place greater emphasis on growth than on its explicit inflation target. It is not just that, in the words of the Bank's governor Sir Mervyn King "policy is exceptionally accommodative to growth". A debate is underway as to whether the Bank of England, and indeed other central banks, should run even easier monetary policy, possibly risking higher inflation in the long term, in order to bolster growth. In December, the US Fed set itself an additional target of bringing down the US unemployment rate to below 6.5%, before it considers raising interest rates.

Mark Carney, the next governor of the Bank of England, has recently said that central banks should consider radical measures, including commitments to keep interest rates on hold for extended periods of time or scrapping inflation targets, to boost growth.

Needless to say, the fact that the Bank of England is not crushing our already anaemic growth to bring inflation down from around 3 per cent to around 2 per cent is a feature, not a bug, in the system. Regardless of what the inflation target actually is, the fact that the Bank tends to be run by extraordinarily talented individuals who are working for the financial health of the country means that they are prepared to make sensible decisions even if they aren't necessarily the prescribed ones. But the choices raise further questions about whether the monolithic inflation target is the right way to run a central bank in the 21st century.

A hawk. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.