The Tories remain in denial about the living standards crisis

Next week’s Autumn Statement provides Cameron and Osborne with the perfect opportunity to act - but will it be more of the same for the privileged few?

Last month, I visited a primary care centre in my constituency to hear more about the challenges facing those working in general practice. In the face of ever increasing demands for their services, stretched budgets and the ongoing upheaval within the NHS, these challenges are many and growing. But while well aware that food banks across the north east are giving out seven times more in emergency food parcels than this time last year, I was still disturbed to learn on my visit that, on an almost daily basis, the GPs and their support staff are giving patients the bus fare to get to the nearest food bank, from their own pockets.

No doubt the Prime Minister would welcome this as the perfect example of the 'Big Society' in action. He would possibly go so far to suggest that it’s saving the taxpayer money in the long-term as patients able to obtain a decent square meal are less likely to need to see their doctor so often. But I believe this appalling state of affairs is a sad reflection of the cost of living crisis facing millions of hard-pressed families and individuals up and down the country under David Cameron.

While out-of-touch Tory ministers might like to kid themselves that the threefold national increase in food bank usage in the last 12 months is a result of posters in local job centres – or because "they are not best able to manage their finances" – those of us in the real world know that increasing numbers of people now turning to food banks for help are in work but still unable to meet the basic cost of living.

And is it any wonder, when for 40 out of the 41 months that David Cameron has been in Downing Street, the cost of living has risen faster than wages? The stark reality is that average earnings have fallen in real terms in every region and nation of the country on this government’s watch, while the cost of family essentials continues to go up and up. Gas and electricity bills have risen by an average of £300 a year, and the cost of nursery places by 30% under David Cameron.  Households are spending 12% more on food bills than in 2007, despite actually purchasing 4.2% less food.

The economic recovery which finally appears to be underway after three years of damaging flatlining is clearly yet to touch the lives of millions of households across Britain.  That’s why Labour has called an Opposition Day debate in the Commons this afternoon, focusing on the cost of living crisis and the government’s economic failure. We believe that any economic recovery should deliver rising living standards for all, and not just for the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s friends at the top. We need a recovery that is balanced, that is built to last and – absolutely critically – benefits every corner and community of this country.

Yet what we have is a government with ministers who continue to bury their heads in the sand and remain totally oblivious to the cost of living crisis that millions are experiencing. Or worse, deny what they hear, and see, with their own eyes and ears.

It’s time that our complacent Prime Minister and Chancellor got a grip of this issue, by finally taking action to tackle the cost of living crisis now facing too many – for a start by implementing our proposed energy price freeze that would benefit 27 million households and 2.4 million businesses, and by extending the previous Labour government’s 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 25 hours per week for working households to help make work pay.

Next week’s Autumn Statement provides Cameron and Osborne with the perfect opportunity to take heed and do something - but will they stand up for the many struggling to make ends meet, or will it be more of the same for the privileged few?

Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne

George Osborne inspects material during a visit to AW Hainsworth and Sons on October 25, 2013 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.

Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne

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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.