The Lib Dems might have moved on from Rennard, but the public haven't

Ask any "ordinary" person what the Lib Dems have been up to in recent weeks and they'll mention the scandal.

Being a mere Lib Dem activist, rather than a professional politician, means I actually have friends who don’t "do" politics – you know, folk who spend their Saturdays doing things other than getting their hands stuck in dodgy letterboxes when out leafleting, writing furious letters to the local paper or haranguing the council via enraged blog posts.

Yesterday was one of those rare occasions when I managed to raise my head from my hands long enough see one such friend. But guess what. He wanted to talk politics. So what great matter of state did he want to discuss? The economy? The debate over the top rate of tax? Crisis in the health service? Michael Gove? Nope. He wanted to talk Rennard. And more precisely, how on earth a professional political organisation made such a 24 carat balls up of the whole thing.

Raising this topic is not going to make me many friends in Great George Street, now it's been kicked into the long grass and is the subject of yet another investigation. But in many ways of course, that’s the problem. Sure the party leadership may want the world to move on – after all, the main media storm was three weeks ago. But I’m afraid the public haven’t moved along. 

Ask any "ordinary" person what the Lib Dems have been up to in recent weeks, and you won’t find anyone talking about campaigns on mental health initiatives, Danny Alexander saying no to cutting the top rate of tax, or David Laws sticking it Michael Gove. No, their overriding concern is why can’t the party sort out the sort of human resources issue that would have been resolved one way or another in a matter of days in any average-sized business. And – unlike other inquiries we’re currently holding– this isn’t an issue anyone is likely to forget about.

So while I suspect the leadership may be quietly congratulating themselves that the Rennard affair is no longer gracing the front pages (and cursing me for raising it again), it’s still the thing most front of mind for the wider electorate.

We may wish it weren’t so and we can media manage all we like, but better to grasp the nettle, hold the inquiry quickly, accept its findings, act appropriately and then move on. Because if you ask the public they’ll tell you – it’s not going away. And I’d quite like them to be thinking of some of the other things we’re doing – but which, while this festers on, we'll get no credit for.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Chris Rennard with Ming Campbell at the Liberal Democrat conference in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.