PMQs review: Cameron still lacks answers on living standards

If the PM wants to dismiss Miliband's energy price freeze as "a con", he needs to come up with a superior policy.

Ed Miliband arrived well armed at today's PMQs: food-bank use has tripled, pay growth is at its lowest level on record and the number of people working part-time because they can't find a full-time job has reached a new high. But after last week's floundering performance, David Cameron put up a better defence. He was able to boast that unemployment had fallen in every category and that there were now a million more people in work than in 2010 (a statistic you can expect to hear every day from now on). The PM also finally settled on a line of attack against Miliband's proposed energy price freeze, branding it a "price con". It is doubtful whether those forced to choose between heating and eating will agree, but this appeal to cynicism is an improvement on last week's red-baiting.

In response to Miliband's questions, all of which were on living standards, Cameron strikingly argued that the best way to improve voters' incomes is to "cut taxes". As was reported earlier this week, the Tories are set to mimic the Lib Dems and pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £12,500. But for voters who are seeing their wages fall by an average of 2% in real-terms, a promise from the government to take a smaller chunk away is unlikely to prove sufficient. The Tories need a plan to increase the minimum wage and to spread use of the living wage, a subject on which they remain oddly silent.

If he wants to dismiss Miliband's energy policy as "a con", Cameron also needs to devise an attractive policy of his own. He currently boasts that the government is ensuring consumers are put on the lowest tariff but figures show that only 10% will benefit from this. Others in his party pin their hopes on a bonfire of green taxes and regulations but these account for just a fraction of the average bill. Polling shows that 75% of the public don't believe that rising bills are due to green levies. Miliband also delivered an effective riposte to the charge that his environmentalism was to blame for excessive prices: "They’ve been floundering all over the place and they blame the last government and green levies. Who was it who said: ‘I think green taxes as a whole need to go up’? It was him as leader of the opposition ... I look back at the record on the energy bill of 2010. Did he oppose the energy bill of 2010? No. He supported the energy bill of 2001. You could say, Mr Speaker, two parties working together in the national interest."

Until Cameron devises a policy with as much appeal as Miliband's price freeze, it is still Labour that will look like the party with answers on living standards.

David Cameron leaves Downing Street earlier today. 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.