Will Nicolle: Be ambitious in the fight against air pollution

Will Nicolle is a researcher at Bright Blue and co-author of its latest report, ‘Emission impossible?

Since the first Clean Air Act 1956, introduced by a Conservative Government, the UK has enjoyed considerably cleaner air. But stronger evidence has emerged in recent years about the detrimental impact of air pollution to human health, the economy and the environment. Consequently, there is growing public and political pressure for tougher action to reduce levels of air pollution in the UK.

In Bright Blue’s new report, Emission impossible?, we found that a clear majority (71 per cent) of UK adults reported that they were concerned about the impact of air pollution on the health of themselves and others. And a clear majority (69 per cent) of adults agree that the Government should reduce air pollution below current levels.

Air pollution is damaging for our health in a myriad of ways. The air pollutants Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM) have been linked to higher incidences of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as higher incidences of dementia and depression. There are also costs to the environment – through, for example, nitrogen deposition affecting ecosystem dynamics – and the economy, through high concentrations of pollutants increasing the prevalence of sick days.

The UK currently meets all its legal limits and targets on air pollution, except for annual and hourly legal limits on the concentration of NO2. The UK is split into 43 zones for reporting purposes on the concentrations of different air pollutants. In 2010, 40 of these zones were reported as in breach of our legal limits on the concentration of NO2. Based on the most recent data, the UK still breaches its legal limits for NO2 in 37 of these reporting areas. And the transport sector is the largest source of NO2.

As we leave the EU, the UK Government needs new, ambitious legal limits, legal responsibilities and transport policies on air pollution. This country should aspire to be a global leader on yet another environmental issue, and strive to become the country with the cleanest air in urban areas in the developed world.

First, the Government should commit to adopting the ambitious World Health Organisation’s guideline limits on four air pollutants: PM, NO2, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (O3). Currently, the UK’s legal limits and targets for different air pollutants are EU-derived. Recently, DEFRA stated they believed the WHO’s recommended PM2.5 limit was “technically feasible”, but further analysis was needed as to its economic and practical feasibility. We recommend the Government adopts all the WHO guideline limits for different air pollutants as soon as possible, but only after a feasibility study.

In the future, the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), or even a new Committee on Clean Air, should have the responsibility to recommend future legal limits and targets for different air pollutants to parliament after conducting appropriate feasibility studies. This will be similar to the role of the independent and influential Committee on Climate Change in advising the UK Government on greenhouse gas emission targets, so that the setting of air pollutant limits and targets will be properly evidenced and scrutinised.

Second, to achieve these stricter limits, those who have the power to reduce air pollution should have clearer legal responsibilities. At the moment, local authorities are obliged to monitor, review and if appropriate take action in relation to the air pollution within their boundaries. But local authorities do not have a clear legal responsibility to reduce air pollution below legal limits. Equally, other public authorities that control some sources of air pollution do not face legal obligations to reduce air pollution levels to below legal limits in areas where they have authority.

We recommend that all local authorities have a legal requirement placed on them to achieve compliance with legal air pollutant limits in their geographic area of responsibility. We also recommend that relevant public bodies should have a new legal duty placed on them to contribute to achieving compliance with legal air pollution limits within their geographic area of responsibility.

Finally, bolder transport policies will be needed if the UK is to meet these new ambitious limits, especially for the air pollutant NO2.

Recently, it was forecast that Electric Vehicles will only be 75 per cent of new vehicle sales by 2040 based on current incentives – falling short of the Government’s target of phasing out fossil fuel car purchases by 2040. The expensive upfront costs of Electric Vehicles are a major barrier, so we recommend therefore that VAT should be scrapped on the purchase of all categories of Electric Vehicles in the UK.

Generally, arguments for the lowering of speed limits to 20mph in urban areas are framed in terms of public safety, but there is now also a solid evidence base to be made for it lowering air pollution from vehicles. We recommend that the default national speed limit on all ‘restricted roads’ in urban areas in England and Wales be lowered from 30mph to 20mph.

In the City of New York in the US, there is a system in place to allow citizens to report commercial trucks and buses that are idling for longer than the legal three minutes – or for longer than one minute if outside schools – through taking photographs and videos and filling out an online form run by the City of New York government. Citizens who report polluters get a 25 per cent share of the income from the fine imposed.

So, alongside new powers to enable local authority traffic officers to instantly apply fines for stationary idling, which the government is considering, we recommend local authorities with a charging Clean Air Zone should be required to introduce such citizen-based reporting of stationary idling. If a fine is imposed, citizens could receive a portion of the fine, with the remainder going to the local authority to be spent on other local air pollution abatement policies. We further recommend the government consult on expanding this citizen-based reporting system from the City of New York to passenger vehicles.

The UK’s departure from the EU means that there is an opportunity to raise air pollution standards in the UK. Post-Brexit Britain should introduce ambitious limits and policies to be a global leader on clean air.

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John O’Connell: Cuts to inheritance tax could help the new government

John O’Connell is Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance

The cost of dying is going up. The TPA published work yesterday detailing the taxes and charges involved when someone passes away. Inheritance Tax (IHT) is the obvious money spinner – in 2019-20, the government is projected to receive £5.35 billion from grieving taxpayers, the highest amount ever.

Inheritance Tax (IHT) is unpopular. Some polls put it ahead of other taxes as distinctly unloved – it’s often followed by Council Tax and the Licence Fee. That won’t come as a surprise to many ConHome readers, but it possibly is surprising to left-wing campaigners – who believe that inheritances entrench inequality, and that we must punish an imagined ruling aristocratic class.

Simply, IHT goes against a natural human instinct to make sure your family is looked after when you’re gone. To that end, it’s anti-aspirational – why work so hard to look after your children if the taxman guzzles it all up anyway?

But this is only one of the many ways that the government extracts money from the dead. These charges also include the cost of death certificates, land registry fees, probate and VAT.

All of that means a homeowner living in London, without a spouse or children to pass assets on to, who purchases a coffin and is cremated, faces a cost of death of up to £60,773.

This could rise to £61,308 if the newly proposed probate fees come into force. Under the innocuous sounding ‘Non-contentious Probate (Fees Order)’, Philip Hammond’s Treasury looked set to push ahead with a plan to hike the fees charged for a grant of probate from the current flat rate of £215 (£155 if a solicitor is used) to a sliding scale of fees ranging from £250 to £6,000, based on the value of the estate.

That ignores the fact that the probate service is not optional for many households. Receiving an inheritance is often unexpected and so families may not have had an opportunity to plan. This will often be the case for households on lower incomes, who do not have the resources to consult expensive solicitors. They are the people who will be most unfairly impacted.

Perhaps the cost of dying all seems rather small fry, in relation to delivering Brexit by October 31. But there is likely to be a Budget ahead of the deadline, which will need to encourage investment and win back support for the Conservative Party potentially embarking on a No Deal and General Election. So there could be three interesting elements to consider:

1. Help everyday families.

Philip Hammond’s proposal to whack up probate fees on families that may not have expected an inheritance, and may be cash poor. It is also a disproportionate increase. The level of service involved in a grant of probate is roughly equivalent, regardless of the size of the estate. Therefore, increasing the fees all the way up to £6,000 is extremely difficult to justify. As Guido reported at the time, the Lib Dems had issues with the move, as do the Law Society. It should be immediately junked.

2. Win back support with tax cuts.

The Government should consider increasing the thresholds at which people pay IHT. Consider how this issue was weaponised by George Osborne in 2007 – he dared Gordon Brown to hold an election with a promise to raise the thresholds to £1million. Brown blinked. Popular tax cuts alongside a Brexit-friendly Budget might just help a party aiming to bring voters back onside.

3. Encourage investment.

Simpler taxes are better and in the long-run, IHT should be abolished. But for now, investment is crucial. Leftist groups such as the Resolution Foundation and the Tax Justice Network have been critical of IHT reliefs like Business Property Relief (BPR). In doing so, they argue that reliefs “cost” the Treasury money; that “the government is handing out” money. Such talk is nonsense – it assumes all money belongs to the government and they simply decide to give some of it back. But until we simplify IHT by abolishing it entirely, reliefs like BPR and the Enterprise Investment Scheme can help drive growth and encourage responsible saving. BPR has been a vital tool in helping smaller companies across the UK, via the Alternative Investment Market (AIM), and has a role in ensuring that companies aren’t broken up to meet IHT liabilities, as the government alludes to. So MPs and mandarins must ignore calls from leftwing Twitter hordes and ensure that investment continues apace after the 31st October.

The new government has come flying out of the blocks and looks set to deliver Brexit by October 31st. The cost of dying may not be top of the list of priorities, but a Budget could be upon us before we know it – now’s the time for good ideas and fighting off bad ones.

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