GDP almost returns to the level it was before Osborne's double-dip

The effects of the second recession have been reversed by 1 per cent growth this quarter.

Cameron's claim yesterday that "the good news will keep coming", while (probably) a mild abuse of his privilege in having seen the GDP figures early, was proved true today. Sort of.

The good news is that we are out of recession; the economy grew by 1.0 per cent over the last quarter. Indeed, given the revisions to previous quarters, that's enough to cancel out the contraction from the quarter before. That is good news, at least insofar as not leaving recession would be very bad indeed.

The bad news is that we are emphatically not out of the doldrums yet. The economy may have recovered from the second, austerity-led recession, but it leaves over-all growth for the last four quarters almost exactly flat (in fact, the economy is still 0.1 per cent smaller than it was at the end of Q3 2011).

As for the economy finally regrowing back to the size it was in 2008, well, there's a long way to go. The classic NIESR graph details just how big the output gap is:

Interestingly, the ONS refused to quantify the effect of the Olympics over all on the GDP figures, but did say that the effect of ticket sales particularly was likely to be a significant part of the growth. Owing to the way the statistics are counted, those sales are not counted for the quarter in which they are made, but the quarter in which they are used. There was, in effect, a transfer of consumption from mid-2011 to mid-2012, and that can't have failed to have an effect. The statistical bulletin reads:

Tickets for the Olympics were sold in tranches through 2011 and 2012 but, in accordance with national accounts principles, these have been allocated to the third quarter, when the output actually occurred. The impact of the ticket sales on GDP can be clearly seen in the lower level data for sports activities, which is part of the Government and other services aggregate in Table B1. Ticket sales were estimated to have increased GDP in the quarter by about 0.2 percentage points. (Emphasis mine)

The agency also urged commentators to look at the growth figures for a longer period than the quarter-on-quarter releases. Coming so soon after Cameron's no-quite-leak, it's hard not to read that response as putting the Prime Minister in his place.

"This may be a good quarter, Mr Cameron, but don't celebrate just yet."

 

George Osborne. 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.