Jo Gideon: Clean air is a basic need. Not a luxury

26 Sep

Jo Gideon is the Member of Parliament for Stoke on Trent Central

This year, the connection between our health and the environment has never been clearer. We have seen how wildlife trafficking and habitat loss are making animal-borne diseases like Covid-19 more likely. The cleaner air during the lockdown has also made us more cognizant of the harmful impact of traffic fumes. So it is timely that the Environment Bill is returning to Parliament soon, requiring the government to set targets for improving our environment, including the reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – the most harmful type of air pollution. But ambitious targets must be backed up by action to make it easier for people to choose cleaner forms of transport, such as electric cars or cycling.

Clean air should be seen as a basic need, not a luxury. In the UK, air pollution is the leading environmental risk to our health, and is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths each year. Public Health England’s conservative estimate of the cost of air pollution to our NHS and social care system in 2017 was £42.88 million, of which £41.2 million was due to PM2.5. This noxious pollutant is made up of tiny particles from fuel, tyres, brake discs and road dust. In the latest World Health Organisation report, 30 towns and cities in the UK exceeded the recommended limits on fine particulate matter, including my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent.

The public wants to see politicians taking action to clean up our air. Polling commissioned by the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) shows that 68 per cent of people in the West Midlands support the creation of car-free zones outside of schools during pick-up and drop-off time, even if this makes the school run less convenient. A majority are also in favour of the government offering incentives for people to change to an electric vehicle, as well as strengthening air pollution laws and investing in walking and cycling.

Accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and active travel will be key to building back cleaner air after Covid-19. Earlier this year, the UK launched a consultation to bring forward the phase-out date for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, and I would urge the government to be even more ambitious by setting the date for 2030 if feasible in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s advice. Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, with annual sales of new EVs expected to reach 200,000 by 2021, and in the most recent Budget I was pleased that the Chancellor extended the Plug-In Car Grant to help people with the purchase costs.

The mass adoption of electric vehicles will require a nationwide charge point network. A mixture of public grants and private partnerships have enabled some local authorities to install charge points, but uptake is far from universal. The government has made great strides in addressing this issue. Yet at the moment with just nine charging points in total – equating to one public charging point for every 268 local EVs – Stoke-on-Trent is one of the worst areas for EV charging in the country. There’s no shortage of ambition from our council to rectify this, provided they have central government support, however. That’s why I welcomed the £500 million funding announced in March to help the rollout of high-powered, open-access charge points.

The government is also supporting councils to create more walking and cycling infrastructure, with a £2 billion funding package and a new strategy for cycling and walking – setting an ambition for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030. The West Midlands is already seeing the benefits of this: the new Starley Network, funded in part by the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund, will join together 500 miles of cycle routes across the region. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have 18 miles of canal pathways which offer a unique opportunity for cycling routes.

And of course, underpinning all of this, must be a world-leading target to tackle the toxic PM2.5, committing in the Environment Bill to achieving the World Health Organisation’s current air quality standards. This would once again demonstrate the government’s commitment to having higher environmental standards than the European Union after Brexit. Achieving this standard – which is feasible according to the government’s own study – would also deliver annual health benefits of £6.8 billion.

As with our net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions, the UK would be the first major economy to make such a commitment, and it would complement our climate change target by encouraging the widespread uptake of electric forms of travel and heating.

Leaving the European Union presents us with a historic opportunity to create a healthier environment for ourselves and future generations. Let’s not waste it.

Alexandra Marsanu: Rather than being paralysed by the doom and gloom, we need to seize the new opportunities

7 Aug

Alexandra Marsanu is a Ward Chair at Holborn and St Pancras Conservatives and Deputy Chair for London at Conservative Young Women. She works professionally as a strategy consultant.

There is no doubt that the unprecedented health crisis will have a massive impact for the months and years to come. From heart-breaking loss of life to more than nine million workers on furlough to increasing waves of layoffs and business closures. The numbers show a grim story unfolding, and the economic one has only just begun.

That doesn’t mean however, that we should become completely paralysed by the doom and gloom. Yes, difficult times lie ahead. And yes, a pessimist or cautious take tends to catch the public mind much more easily than an enthusiastic, potentially reckless cheerleader. But as history has shown time and time again, you can always bet on Britain’s strength to survive and turn each challenge into an opportunity. And given the looming economic shifts, a re-think of how businesses are run and what skills are needed for the post-covid economy should start sooner rather than later.

The effects of covid-19 have certainly started laying out the breadcrumbs for the next waves of innovation. ‘Just-in-time’ production and global supply chains have proven vulnerable to disruption. Empty high-streets show an already struggling retail industry in need of massive transformation. Working from home has been more successful than expected as many office workers are reluctant to get back to the Pret sandwich diet or stand on a crowded tube.

A need for change on how we do things is slowly but surely emerging. Take manufacturing and supply chains. Could the flimsy global supply chains experienced in the past few months signify a need for bringing it back home? The shift to the services industry led to manufacturing accounting for just 8.7 per cent of economic output this year, down from 15 per cent in the 1990s. And given the allure of high-paying professional services or finance jobs, this is not surprising.

But as Elon Musk put it best “someone needs to do the real work”. If we don’t produce anything we don’t have anything and empty supermarket shelves and the PPE crisis back in March certainly proved that. A domestic production of basic necessities such as food, medicine and PPE, is not a bad thing to have in times of crisis. A need to speed up decarbonisation can be catalysed by investing in new technologies in such as energy storage, cheaper electric vehicles or small modular nuclear reactors. Automation, artificial intelligence and 3D printing can make advanced manufacturing attractive and help tackle the reshoring headwinds.

The success of remote working is another interesting trend to explore. Ghostly streets in Bank or Canary Wharf flag that Tramsport for London, lunch spots and office rents are in deep trouble. Without workers or tourists roaming the streets some may need to shut down for good. But while some ways of working may come back once a vaccine is ready, technology has proven that many don’t need to. Could this offer interesting opportunities in revitalising the dying high streets in small towns with the same fitness or eat-out facilities you may find in Central London? Or could this finally incentivise many more companies to not concentrate their offices in one location and move to a hub/co-working approach? A hybrid work from home model may be the future.

But given the uncertainty of the economic recovery, how can we know for sure what will change and what will stick? Nassim Taleb offers an intriguing thought in his book on the so-called black swan events:

“The reason free markets work is that they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error.”

And why not take this approach?

Your typical entrepreneur seems to use this best. A new idea is tried out. The mistakes are learnt from. It is adapted. That tends to lead to better results than massive costly projects. New policies could be tested through small experiments and local community feedback. As jobs become more dispersed, a small town could try out a restructuring of its high street to become a place for entertainment and public services. Local community feedback can easily be gathered. And if it works others will quickly adopt it.

Further Education colleges and work placements can be another quick way to try out a job change and re-skill for the new economy. Instead of having millions of people compete for jobs which may no longer exist, short online courses could be used to learn new things. Digital skills can be learned and tested over a matter of weeks. Or different career paths can be tested out through re-training and short placements for career changers similar to Sunak’s Kick Start Scheme aimed at 16-24-year-olds.

The uncertainty may look numbing, but opportunities will become apparent once the crisis settles and habits change. Now is the time to tinker as much as possible with new ideas. As researchers work day and night to find a vaccine and the furlough scheme puts the breaks on an economic crash, we need to make sure that we don’t emerge unprepared on the other side.

Ed McGuinness: We need more innovation to reopen schools

24 Jun

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.

Education is the silver bullet. In the formative years it gives children the skills to interact properly with their peers; as adolescents it delivers the abilities to contribute meaningfully to society; and as young adults it can deliver advanced knowledge to bring about innovation and societal progression. Education is progressive by its very nature; you cannot build the space shuttle before learning your times tables or even learning how to interact socially; the reason why the formative years are so aptly named.

The Government has set criteria for schooling following the much publicised “bubble” principle. Whereby, guided by the science, school class sizes are reduced to a maximum of 15. With average class sizes in England being at 27 this means, on the face of it, there would not be enough teachers or real estate to educate children. But we should not accept this as fait accompli.

For the individual, a Swedish study, found that absence does have a significant effect on average grades in the short term. Whilst studies have yet to prove long term effects conclusively, the penalty, in the labour market, for absences is most profound in those aged 25-30 – precisely the age that most young adults in the UK are beginning the high growth phase of their career.

For society, education not only produces skilled individuals, but also has secondary effects. Education provides a safe environment for children to learn how to interact successfully. Crucially it allows parents of children to be as economically active as possible, whilst school provides a form of secondary childcare. Caring for children at home, whilst attempting to tutor them and be productive at work must lead to a trade-off, most likely in the latter.

With social injustice also so prevalent in the recent news it would also be amiss to ignore the impact that an education vacuum has on the disadvantage gap in England which closed by around ten per cent between 2011 and 2019 – a phenomenal effort from Government and teaching staff. We are now in danger of undoing all that good work. 60 per cent of private schools and 37 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas versus only 23 per cent of state schools in more deprived areas had the advantage of extra resources beforehand, including online learning portals, which gave them a structural head start. Whilst data is still scarce, in the first week of home schooling (beginning 23 March) pupils from middle class homes were twice as likely to be taking part in daily live or recorded lessons as those from working class households (30 per cent compared to 16 per cent) and with around 50 per cent participation from private schools. The bottom line is that the loss of in-person learning or, at least, supervision could lead to a significant widening of the disadvantage gap once again.

However, we remain fixed by the “bubble” principle. Whilst the Department of Education provides the grand strategy, there are ways councils can step up and take the initiative. A shining example is Wandsworth. Consistently able to deliver value for money for residents, Wandsworth Council has continued its impressive, pragmatic approach to education in its nine-point plan. Three points stand out as innovative.

Firstly, making parks and outside spaces free of charge for schools to use will encourage outdoor learning during the most appropriate months of the year. This new environment also lowers the already low risk to children and teachers of the virus. Making unused council building space available to schools will allow those whose real estate is already tight to expand into a greater space further enhancing safety and allowing greater flexibility to staff and students. Finally, by providing free mental health services to teachers during this period, the council can promote a happier and healthier educational environment. We should remember it is our teachers, heroic even in normal times, who will be facing the additional pressure of explaining complex issues to children, having to enforce unnatural social distancing at times and who genuinely care about the educational welfare of their pupils not being fulfilled to the highest extent.

Whilst not all councils will have the resources of Wandsworth, or necessarily the same micro issues as a London Borough, the broader point is that innovative solutions are needed from all local authorities who are empowered to provide a conducive educational environment.

At the beginning of this crisis, the Government, both centrally and locally, was rightly focussed on its impact on the lives of the public. We saw the huge national effort which has led to a significant increase in NHS capacity, the procurement of much needed ventilators, economic measures which have run into the hundreds of billions of pounds, and a relentless focus on trying to control the spread of the virus. Now it is time to think of the longer term impact. The economic recovery will take many months to get back to pre-crisis levels and years to realign into a more immune position. The educational impact on this nation will last quite possibly for almost a century.

Previous monikers for generations have included “the greatest” and “the silent”. We must innovate if we are to prevent “the lost generation” entering the lexicon of the future.