Will the Lib Dems back Labour's mansion tax motion?

If Clegg supports the motion, he will enrage the Tories. If he opposes it, he will be accused of another "betrayal".

With exemplary timing, Labour has chosen the opening day of the Lib Dem spring conference to publish the text of its Commons motion in favour of a mansion tax. Nick Clegg can now expect to be challenged over the weekend to say whether his party will vote in favour of it when the debate is held on Tuesday.

The motion reads:

That this House believes that a mansion tax on properties worth over £2million, to fund a tax cut for millions of people on middle and low incomes, should be part of a fair tax system and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals at the earliest opportunity.

The decision to exclude any reference to the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate (which Labour's mansion tax would fund), in favour of a vaguer commitment to "a tax cut for millions of people on middle and low incomes" (which could encompass a rise in the personal allowance), means it will be harder for the Lib Dems not to support it. Vince Cable previously suggested that his party would back the motion provided that Labour did not engage in "party political point scoring" and "drag in other issues like the 10p rate".

It depends entirely how they phrase it. If it is purely a statement of support for the principle of a mansion tax I’m sure my colleagues would want to support it.

But very often in these opposition days they can’t resist the temptation to make party political point scoring and drag in other issues like the 10p rate and if that happens I am sure we will not. It is up to them to be statesmanlike and sensible.

Clegg similarly refused to rule out voting with Labour ("Neither Vince nor I know what will be put before us so we can't of course determine in advance how we would vote"), prompting David Cameron to say that he would be "rather disappointed" if his deputy did so. He told ITV News: "I haven’t asked him the question. But as it’s not in the Coalition Agreement to have a mansion tax, I would be rather disappointed if he did."

For Labour, this is a win-win situation. If the Lib Dems back the motion, Miliband will attack the coalition as divided, while painting the Tories as the party of the rich. If the Lib Dems oppose it or abstain, he will accuse Clegg's party of lacking the gumption to even vote for its own policy. As shadow financial secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie said today:

If Nick Clegg and Vince Cable really believe in a fairer tax system they should back our motion in support of a mansion tax on pro perties over £2 million to pay for tax cuts for millions on middle and low incomes.

After going along with a Tory tax cut for millionaires, a failing economic plan, a VAT rise and a trebling of tuition fees this is a chance for the Liberal Democrats to finally vote for something that was in their manifesto.

With the Lib Dems already far from short of political anxieties, Labour has just created another dilemma for Clegg's party.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. 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.

***

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.