Clay figures made by artist Liz Crow to symbolise the human cost of austerity. Photo: Matthew Fessey
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Under austerity, deprivation in the UK is becoming normalised. Don’t vote for any more of it

Austerity was a choice and one not born from economic reasoning but political ideology: a desire to dismantle the benefit system and with it, the state.

Jenny Tomlinson, 24, hasn’t eaten in two days. She has fibromyalgia, a painful chronic illness that means she can’t leave the house, and feeds herself by online shopping “when [she] can afford it”, but after paying her electric and council tax, her benefits have run out. She’s been waiting six months for an assessment for the new care and mobility support, Personal Independence Payments (PIP), and her disability unemployment benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), won’t go into her bank account for three days.

“I’m out of food now,” she says. “My cupboards are empty, bar a handful of pasta and half a bag of chips in the freezer. There isn’t anything I can do.”  

There’s a food bank in Jenny’s town now but she won’t be able to use it. Because she’s unable to get out of bed, she can’t get to the Citizen’s Advice centre that gives out the voucher she needs. 

I’ve spoken to a lot of “Jennys” over the course of this government. Twenty-something disabled men working out what biscuits would fill his stomach because the PIP cuts meant he’d soon have no one to help him reach the oven. Women who fled abusive husbands only to have the benefit cap force them to feed their children on a few pounds a week out of a cramped, mouldy flat. Severely disabled wheelchair users – ordinary young adults – given 15-minute slots by their local authority to go to the toilet in the day and told to hold their bladder through the night.

I would like to say that I remember each of their names but there are too many – and most ask to be anonymous. They are ashamed at the thought of their neighbours finding out what is happening behind closed door or scared of the Department for Work and Pensions. I think of them sometimes when I see David Cameron patting himself on the back for this country’s so-called “recovery”. That’s been a lot lately. It is election time. I imagine it is easier to campaign for another five years of power if you block out the citizens you have already starved. 

As Robert Skidelsky put it for New Statesman last week: “Over their five years in power” – and “at the heart of their election campaign” – “the Conservatives have claimed their austerity policy saved the country from disaster”.

I wonder what exactly they think they have saved this country from.  Our schools now have to act as “miniature welfare states” – feeding, clothing, and washing children – after cuts in services to the poorest families, a study by the National Association of Head Teachers found last week.

If that is not defined as disaster, I would like to know what is. £43.5m of school budgets – taken from the money that should be spent on their education – is being used to plug the gapes left by the Coalition. One school surveyed has its own food bank now. Two thirds of headteachers say they’re buying their pupils things that five years ago were delivered by social and health services. That’s haircuts and underwear. The month before, it was shoes and winter coats. These studies seem to come out weekly now – and the revelations are getting darker, readying for the point where we are no longer shocked. 

Deprivation is becoming normalised. In one of the richest countries in the world, over 700,000 people – including 300,000 children – have been pushed into poverty over the past two years. The New Policy Institute released their findings now because the government refused to publish the official data – that’s the evidence that shows the impact of their mass social security cuts, like the bedroom tax – until next month. There’s an election coming. It is best to hush up the truth.

Do they know what the truth is at this point? I do not buy the idea Iain Duncan Smith is sadistic or that David Cameron is stupid. They behave as zealots, caught in the fervor that other people’s poverty is not on their hands. As Paul Krugman puts it in his new book, The Austerity Delusion: “The austerian ideology that dominated elite discourse five years ago has collapsed, to the point where hardly anyone still believes it. Hardly anyone, that is, except the coalition that still rules Britain…”

Three years ago, professionals were predicting the consequences of austerity: the increased risk of benefit claimants killing themselves and children being taken into care. The warnings are here again, for anyone who wants to listen: Oxford University says the Conservatives’ plans for £12bn of social security cuts will double the number of people forced to use food banks. It means nothing. The blindness around the austerity agenda has gone from selective amnesia to hallucination, as if the only way its architects can look at reality is by sticking to the myth all this was inevitable.

Austerity was a choice and one not born from economic reasoning but political ideology: a desire to dismantle the benefit system and with it, the state. There should be no surprise what it has done to this country. Austerity by definition is the act of building a national recovery off the backs of personal misery.

The evening before election day, the disabled artist Liz Crow will show the “human cost” of austerity, burning 650 small clay human figures – each paired with one MP and a story of someone’s malnutrition, eviction, or death. As the country goes to the polls, the idea of choices and consequences is worth remembering.  

The past five years has been built on a lie. There is money for tax cuts for millionaires but social care for severely disabled people needed shredding. Britain's richest can double their net worth since the recession as grown men are crushed to death in skips scavenging for food. If austerity was a necessary sacrifice, it is telling it is the poor’s to make.

*Names have been changed

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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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.