The inflation hawks were wrong

As NS economics editor David Blanchflower predicted, inflation has plummeted in the last year.

Last year, as inflation rose to more than 4 per cent (it eventually peaked at 5.2 per cent last September), a band of right-wing commentators and economists demanded that the Bank of England hike interest rates in an attempt to bring prices down. Andrew Sentance, then a member of the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), bemoaned "the lack of a substantive policy response to persistent above-target inflation" and warned that "if we do not start to raise UK interest rates gradually soon, we risk having to do so more aggressively in the future". A fearful leader in the Spectator declared: "Inflation is back with a vengeance...Britain is once again in an inflationary cycle...For how much longer can high inflation be described as a blip?"

Others, however, including New Statesman economics editor David Blanchflower, argued that the spike was largely due to temporary factors such as the VAT increase, higher global commodity prices, and the depreciation of sterling, and predicted that inflation would fall back in 2012. In February 2011, in a piece entitled "Stop worrying about inflation", Blanchflower wrote:

Inflation is going to collapse in 2012 when the impact of the one-off increase in VAT, oil and commodity prices and the exchange-rate depreciation mechanically drop out of the inflation calculations. As Mervyn noted in his recent speech, these three items alone account for 3 per cent of the current 3.7 per cent CPI inflation rate.

Well, the results are in and it looks like Blanchflower was right again (as I've noted before, he was one of the few economists to warn that George Osborne's excessive austerity measures would trigger a double-dip recession). Inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, was just 2.2% last month, the lowest level since November 2009 (see graph below) and only 0.2 per cent above the Bank's target rate.

Inflation is expected to rise over the next few months as this year's round of energy price increases take effect, but it is still likely to remain close to the 2 per cent target rate (which should, in any case, be raised). This should prompt the Bank to keep interest rates at their record low of 0.5 per cent and consider a third round of quantitative easing. As in the US, where Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has pledged to keep rates near zero until at least mid-2015, sustained monetary stimulus is needed to support growth and employment, not least when the government's fiscal policy remains so determinedly self-defeating. While it appears that the economy returned to growth in the third quarter, the danger of a contraction in the fourth quarter (a triple-dip recession) remains. Had the Bank listened to the inflation hawks and hiked rates, the UK would have suffered an ever deeper double-dip.

It was already clear that the Hayekian right was disastrously wrong about fiscal policy; now it's clear that it was wrong about monetary policy too.

The Bank of England building on Threadneedle Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.