Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband shows his hand on English devolution

Labour leader promises to end a "century of centralisation" by giving city regions major new powers and funding.

Ever since Ed Miliband declared his support for localism in his Hugo Young memorial lecture, Labour figures have been looking for concrete evidence of his commitment to devolving power from Whitehall. It was one of the motivations behind the recent letter to the Guardian from left-wing think-tanks which called for "devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to the people."

In a major speech on the economy tomorrow in Birmingham, Miliband will go a significant way to meeting their demands. Announcing the interim conclusions of Andrew Adonis’s growth review, he will vow to end a "century of centralisation" by at least doubling the level of devolved funding to city and county regions to £20bn over the next parliament (a figure that Labour sources emphasise is the "bare minimum"). As one shadow cabinet member recently put it to me, to see the party's commitment to devolution, "follow the money". Alongside this, regions will be offered new powers over transport and housing infrastructure, the Work Programme, and apprenticeships and skills, a move described by the party as "the biggest devolution of power to England’s great towns and cities in a hundred years".

Miliband and Ed Balls are to write to the leaders of all local authorities, universities and Local Enterprise Partnerships asking them "to draw up joint plans to boost growth and private sector jobs in their regions." Those regions that bring forward plans in the first nine months of the next parliament, and that meet the tests set by the Adonis review, will receive a "devolution deal" in the first spending review period of a Labour government.

The aim of the policy is to bridge the huge productivity gap between London and the regions (thus rebalancing the economy), and to create the kind of high-skilled, well-paid jobs lacking in so many areas. As Miliband will say tomorrow: "Britain is the country of the industrial revolution and Birmingham was one of the great cities of that revolution. But the country of the industrial revolution has ignored the lessons of its own history for far too long: the country that once built its prosperity on the great towns and cities, like Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff, has become a country which builds its prosperity far too much in one city: London.

"We need a prosperous London, but we also need to build prosperity outside it. Today, every region outside London is below the national average when it comes to productivity, while London is 40% above it."

Given the fiscal constraints a Labour government would face, Miliband is clear that it is the private sector, not the state, that will be the primary source of new jobs. After addressing prices (with announcements on energy and housing) and wages (by promising to strengthen the minimum wage and spread use of the living wage),  Miliband's focus on employment is the next strand of his plan to tackle the "cost-of-living crisis" (see my blog from this morning on why he's sticking with this line).

In his speech, he will contrast his commitment to devolution with the inaction of the coalition. Referencing Michael Heseltine's government-commissioned growth review No Stone Unturned (which was similarly launched in Birmingham), he will say: "This government had an opportunity to make a difference. Michael Heseltine’s review called for a massive devolution of funding from Whitehall to the cities. But David Cameron and George Osborne allocated just £2 billion for a Local Growth Fund in their Spending Review for 2015-16.  The best report this government has produced has been the one that they have most ignored.

“We can and must do a lot better than that. It is why nine months ago, I asked Andrew Adonis to recommend the way forward for Labour. We have heard his interim conclusions today and his message is clear: devolving power from Whitehall to our towns and cities is essential to generate the new jobs we need."

It would be fascinating to know what Heseltine, who shared a platform with Adonis at an event on London last week (the two are long-standing mutual admirers), makes of Labour's decision to go far further than the Tories in embracing his conclusions. Perhaps he'll be kind enough to tell us...

One other figure closely involved in the speech was Chuka Umunna (another Heseltine fan), who made the case for regional economic devolution in a piece for Centre for Cities in February, and who, along with Jon Cruddas, Liz Kendall and Hilary Benn, is the most fervent advocate of localism in the shadow cabinet. His "Agenda 2030" is crucial to Miliband's ambition to build "a different kind of economy".

Having so clearly recognised the merits of devolution, Miliband will now be pushed to go further, for instance by devolving housing benefit (allowing councils to invest any savings in housebuilding) and lifting the cap on council borrowing to allow local authorities to borrow to build. But those who have previously doubted his commitment to giving power away, will welcome tomorrow's speech as a significant downpayment.

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.