Ed Miliband campaigns before the Rochester and Strood by-election on October 23, 2014 in Chatham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband shows his confidence on the EU

The Labour leader regards his party's commitment to membership as a political strength. 

The most significant thing about today's PMQs was Ed Miliband's choice of subject matter: EU membership. If Labour once feared its stance on the issue was a weakness, it now regards it as a strength. After being rebuked by Angela Merkel for his demand to abandon the free movement of people, it is ever harder for David Cameron to argue that he can secure the reforms he believes are necessary for Britain to remain in the EU. As a result, he is being forced to flirt with the possibility of withdrawal. 

Pressed by Miliband on whether he was prepared to campaign for an "out" vote (an option he previously ruled out), the PM filibustered. "I want Britain to stay in a reformed European Union," he said. But is it possible to reform Europe? Many Conservative MPs no longer believe it is, a divide Miliband skillfully exploited today. "There's no point giving us the 'fight them on the beaches' speech because the last time he tried that was over Jean-Claude Juncker and he lost 26 votes to 2. That's his leadership in Europe," he said, and the Tory benches were notably muted. 

In contrast to Cameron, Miliband was unambiguous: "I want to stay in the EU". As well as being buoyed by polls showing support for membership at a 23-year high, Labour regards its commitment to the EU as one of its few trump cards on business (Miliband told Cameron that business leaders would have their "heads in their hands" over his stance - and many do ). But a significant number of Labour MPs continue to fear that Cameron's charge that the party is too "chicken" to "trust the people" is one that could hurt it during the election campaign. 

With the aid of an arsenal of critical Labour quotes, Cameron held his own in the chamber. He noted that Alistair Darling ("about the only person on the Labour benches who had any economic credibility") had argued that an EU referendum was inevitable ("It's a boil that has to be lanced"), that shadow deputy leader of the House Thomas Docherty had warned Labour was in a "dreadful position" and that even John Prescott was now giving Miliband lectures on the English language (although the sight of Cameron deriding the working class northerner is unlikely to have endeared him to all). 

The other notable point from today's session was the co-ordinated Labour assault on PM over VAT. With Cameron again refusing to rule out another rise, it is clear this will be a key election attack line for the opposition. 

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.