PMQs review: Miliband's New Statesman jibe backfires

After claiming that Cameron was "scraping the barrel" by quoting the NS, the Labour leader was promptly reminded that it endorsed his leadership.

Without wishing to appear unduly solipsistic, it was the New Statesman that was the subject of the most memorable exchange at today's PMQs. After Ed Miliband assailed David Cameron over the loss of Britain's AAA credit rating, the PM retorted that the NS ("the in-house magazine of the Labour Party") had written of the Labour leader's approach: 

His critique of the government strategy will never win back public trust, his proposals for the economy will never convince, his credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches.

The quote in question was adapted from Anthony Seldon's open letter to Ed Balls in last week's issue (not an NS editorial as Cameron implied) calling for the shadow chancellor to "fall on his sword" and it prompted this ungenerous response from the Labour leader: "I think he's scraping the barrel by quoting the New Statesman."
 
Thanks, Ed. (P.S. We hope you like our new logo). After a swift prompt from George Osborne, Cameron went on to remind Miliband that the NS was "the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership bid" (the People excepted), leaving the Labour leader looking rather foolish. By dismissing Cameron's NS quote out of hand, Miliband fell into a Tory trap.
 
Up to this point, the session had been dominated by last week's credit downgrade, with Miliband noting just how much store Cameron and Osborne once set by the retention of AAA. But to the inevitable riposte from the PM - "it's his policy to address excessive borrowing by borrowing more!" - Miliband could only fall back on the stock reply that 'I ask the questions". "Anytime he wants to swap places, I'll answer him," said Miliband. 
 
What should worry Labour is that Miliband has yet to settle on a convincing response to the politically potent charge that his party would simply "borrow more". The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the costs of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). 
 
The problem for Labour, however, is that Balls and Miliband, aware that voters may not easily accept their distinction between "good" borrowing and "bad" borrowing, are unwilling to make the explicit case for deficit-financed stimulus. Earlier this week, George Osborne, not entirely unconvincingly, ridiculed it as "an economic policy that dares not speak its name".
 
Miliband may quip that he doesn't need to give answers until he's in Cameron place, but if he wants to continue to attack the coalition on this territory, let alone become Prime Minister, he will need to do rather better than that. 

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.