Ed Miliband and David Cameron walk through the Central Lobby after listening to the Queen's Speech on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband targets incompetence, but the momentum is with Cameron

The PM believes the wind is blowing his way - and some in Labour fear he is right.
 

If not quite presented with an open goal (in a PMQs replete with World Cup references), Ed Miliband had no shortage of targets this week. He started by taking aim at the government over the Birmingham schools scandal, demanding to know: "If there is a serious question at their school, where do they [parents] go to get it sorted?" Cameron replied that while the failings were unacceptable, they shouldn't be used "to try to knock down successful school formats". But Miliband made a convincing case for a third way between local authority control and Gove's anarchic model, declaring of Cameron: "He has no answer on this question of accountability because it isn’t realistic to do it centrally and Ofsted inspections aren’t going to do the job."

From here, he moved on to the passport backlog row and accused Theresa May of "fighting with the Education Secretary but not paying attention to the business of government". The Tories are always at their most vulnerable when attacked for incompetence, rather than wickedness, and Miliband's line of attack was a smart one. Tellingly, while May shook her head and said "nonsense" as he spoke, Gove remained motionless.

But Cameron had saved his trump card till the end. After Miliband failed to mention today's unemployment figures, which show joblessness at a five-year low of 6.6 per cent (although wage growth is still below inflation at 0.7 per cent), he roared: "He’s absolutely allergic to good news because he knows that as the economy gets stronger, he gets weaker." The sense that the momentum is with Cameron was enhanced by the answer he gave when asked by Labour's Mike Kane if he should be calling Roy Hodgson for some tips on "team discipline".

He replied:

I wouldn't want to offer Roy too much advic,  but what I would say about this government ...We've had the same Chancellor for four years and we've got record growth in this country. We've had the same Home Secretary for four years and we've had record falls of crime in the country. We've had the same Education Secretary and we've got 250,000 fewer children in failing schools. I say, if you've got a strong team, with a strong plan, stick with the team, stick with the plan and keep on putting it in the back of the net.

The answer roused the Tory benches, who cried "more, more!" ("four-nil!" one MP added) and a beaming Cameron turned to his party with pride. The answer all but confirmed that Osborne, Gove and May will remain in their posts in the forthcoming reshuffle ("stick with the team") and served as confirmation that Cameron believes the wind is blowing his way. The problem for Miliband is the increasing number in Labour who think he is right.

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.