Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour would cut much less than the Tories. Will it dare say so?

The party's plans would allow it to shield services from the worst. But for fear of appearing profligate it won't tell voters. 

If evidence was needed that the Conservatives fear the political consequences of the cuts to come, today's assault on the BBC's coverage of the Autumn Statement provided it. In his interview on the Today programme this morning, George Osborne denounced its reporting as "totally hyperbolic". The Chancellor, who never acts without political intent, was later supported by David Cameron whose spokesman said: "The prime minister and the chancellor do think those are hyperbolic descriptions, which don’t help us have what is important here, which is a clear and sensible and measured debate about the decisions that both are being taken and need to be taken in the future."

It was BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith's description of the OBR document as "the book of the doom" and his suggestion that the UK was heading "back to the land of Road to Wigan Pier" that provoked their ire. But while journalists are hardly unknown for hyperbole, Smith can be cleared of this charge. Ideological allies and foes of Osborne agree that the figures contained in the OBR blue book are truly remarkable.

By 2019-20, state spending is forecast to be just 35.2 per cent, the lowest level since the 1930s. To reach this point, without increasing taxes (in fact cutting them by £7.2bn), the Tories will need to cut departmental spending by £55bn in the next parliament: £20bn more than is this one. With most of Whitehall's low hanging fruit already having been plucked, the next government will find it impossible to cut without inflicting hitherto unimaginable damage on public services (which was exactly Smith's point). Local councils, schools, prisons and courts will all struggle to perform their basic duties (as many already are). 

Unsurprisingly, as I write in my column this week, the Tories fear that greater awareness of this could cost them the election due in five months' time. Osborne and other senior Tories partly blame their failure to win a majority on his "age of austerity" conference speech in 2009, which triggered a poll slump from which they never recovered. Labour was able to win back support as it warned of cuts to tax credits, reductions in child benefit, Sure Start closures and a rise in VAT (all denied by the Tories during the campaign only to be introduced immediately afterwards). In an attempt to avoid a repeat, the Tories are, quite logically, seeking to intimidate the BBC into silence. Fortunately, the corporation is putting up a robust defence, declaring that "We’re satisfied our coverage has been fair and balanced and we’ll continue to ask ministers the questions our audience want answered."

But the central political question is whether Labour can capitalise. By promising to introduce new tax rises (a 50p rate, a mansion tax, a bankers' bonus tax, a steeper bank levy), to leave room to borrow to invest and to only eliminate the current account deficit (rejecting the Tories' target of an absolute surplus), Ed Balls has avoided the need for cuts on the scale proposed by Osborne. The Resolution Foundation estimates that the post 2015-16 fiscal tightening required under his rules could be as low as £4bn. Unlike Osborne, ideologically fixated on achieving a surplus by 2018-19, Balls is playing a longer game, leaving open the possibility that the productive capacity of the economy will eventually recover (reducing the need for extreme austerity). 

Yet for fear of appearing profligate, Labour, as I note in my column, is terrified of saying as much. While vowing to reduce the deficit "in a fairer way" (through tax rises on the wealthy) and to promote the wage growth required to increase Treasury revenues, it won't say that its approach will help to shield public services from the worst. The result is that the Greens and the SNP are able to accuse Labour of signing up to Osbornite austerity ("they're all the same") and to pocket voters from the left. Many assume, as Dan Hodges did today, that Balls's plans mean he too would reduce spending to 1930s levels when the reverse is true. 

Interviewed on the Today programme this morning, the shadow chancellor rightly said: "I want to make sure we get the deficit down in a way which doesn’t destroy our national defences, undermine social care, hit the National Health Service". But it took far too many questions before he made this point. As Osborne's plans come under greater scrutiny from the BBC and others, the opposition will need to decide whether it is finally prepared to set out this dividing line. 

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.