iPads in, colour film out: the 2012 inflation basket

And the lowly pineapple finally makes it into basket of goods used to calculate inflation.

The Office of National Statistics has released its annual review of the inflation calculation, showing what has been added and removed to the basket of goods used to calculate inflation. This year, out goes the cost of developing and printing colour film, as digital cameras steadily erode that business, and in comes Apple iPads (or rather, "tablet computers"), to reflect the growing size and importance of the market -- tablet computers are predicted to outsell PCs by 2013.

The changes reflect a number of priorities. As well as those related to the death of old technologies and the birth of new ones, others are designed to make the job of actually collating the information easier. So "branded chocolate sweets" replace "candy coated chocolate" due to difficulty of collection, while "outdoor adventure boot" is swapped out for "walking/hiking boot".

Some of the changes reflect different ways of buying the same things. We no longer purchase "cable TV subscriptions" in enough numbers, apparently, instead opting for "bundled communication services"; and "annual leisure centre membership" is taken out. since it is already reflected in, for example, "leisure centre exercise classes".

There is a tough line to walk with some introductions. Adding technology early is always important, since the fall in prices represents a real increase in relative living standards; and yet, pre-empting market adoption runs the risk of artificially dampening the final figures. For instance, blu-ray players were added to the basket in 2010, when they looked like the future of home entertainment; with the growing popularity of streaming services, they now look like an evolutionary dead-end, and yet their continually dropping prices will have lowered inflation, albeit by a miniscule amount.

The ONS always has a tricky job to do in balancing these competing demands, and it is further hampered by the fact that spending habits differ greatly between the most and least well-off in society. Trying to come up with a single figure to represent the whole nation may be an impossible task, but they will carry on trying to do so for as long as we ask it of them.

Included:

Bag of sweets (not chocolate), replacing bag of boiled/jellied sweets, to allow representation of foam sweets which have taken an increasing share of the market.

Tablet computers, introduced to represent a significant and growing market. Also improves coverage in an under-represented area of the basket.

Chicken and chips, takeaway, introduced to improve coverage of catering which has been identified as an under-represented area of the basket.

Pineapple. Fruit prices vary greatly, so it is beneficial to collect across as broad a range as possible.

Removed:

Develop & print 135/24 colour film, this item has a low and decreasing weight due to the increasing popularity of digital cameras.

Step ladder, a relatively low weighted item in an over covered area of the basket.

Subscription to cable TV, replaced by bundled communication services reflecting a change in the way in which this service is purchased.

 

Get the full data (pdf).

 

The lowly pineapple, finally in the inflation basket. Flickr/ECohen, CC-BY-SA

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.

***

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.