Labour "making decision" over whether to back HS2 next spring

New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh says "we are in the process of making that decision" when asked if Labour will support the High Speed 2 bill.

I noted yesterday that new shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh had made some strikingly sceptical comments about High Speed 2, warning, in an echo of Ed Balls's conference speech, that "we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country".

Today, in another significant intervention, Creagh has revealed that Labour is "in the process" of deciding whether or not to support the HS2 bill next spring. While her predecessor, Maria Eagle, declared in her conference speech, "we support High Speed 2", Labour has now moved to a position of genuine agnosticism.

Here's Creagh's exchange with Adam Boulton on Sky News earlier today.

Adam Boulton: The situation is going to be again, we are talking about 2015, talking about Labour coming in are they in favour of it or not?

Mary Creagh: The Bill is going through Parliament we are going to have it on the 31st October, the paving Bill, we are then going to have...

AB: Which you are going to support?

MC: We are. And then we are going to have the big hybrid Bill coming forward in March or April next year so there is a lot of work to be done and we will be going through the government’s figures with a fine tooth comb.

AB: Can you pledge whether you are going to support it or not?

MC:  Well we are in the process of making that decision and when we make it you’ll be the first to know.

Creagh later added:

It would be, you know, it would be easier if they’d done more work on it, we are still actually at the very beginnings of it. I was at the Department yesterday, I looked at the proposals for the line to go from Birmingham to Leeds, there are going to be a lot of communities that are looking at it and making their input on what the line could do and of course as soon as you start to introduce tunnelling it is £100m per kilometre, that is very expensive.

Based on that, the odds are against Labour backing the bill in March/April. If the party does U-turn, the choice facing the coalition will be whether to persist with the project in the face of opposition, or to argue that it is not viable without cross-party support (due to the time frame involved) and to find its own way of spending that £50bn.

A placard placed by the Stop HS2 Campaign sits in a hedegrow near to the planned location of the new high speed rail link in Knutsford. 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.