Yesterday, the Chancellor delivered his latest Budget. It was gloomy reading, with dreadful OBR productivity growth forecasts meaning that households face continued wage squeezes and that the austerity will continue to haunt politics.
Many announcements in the budget seem aimed at addressing this low productivity over the longer term; expanding the National Productivity Investment Fund, further investment in T-Levels (not due to exist as a qualification until the end of this decade) and a funding boost for schools teaching A-Level maths. Any one of these could be argued as a plank in creating a high-tech, high skilled and high wage economy in the future (though taken together, it is hard to argue that they go far enough).
What strikes me most about this budget, however, it that it does not seem to consider the importance of a sustainable future. High tech jobs might be a good thing, but on a planet with finite resources, it is increasingly clear that the economy of the future must be low impact. This budget has done almost nothing to encourage sustainable growth, or to address environmental challenges.
Instead, we have a politics of appeasement. For example, fuel duty remains frozen at 2010 levels, while taxes on economy flights and new diesel HGVs are also frozen. Policies like this are popular with the electorate, particularly those who are less well off, and can be presented as the Government supporting ‘hard working families’. Yet they feed into damaging patterns of behaviour, which are not sustainable. If there is a to be a focus on transport investment, to ‘get Britain moving’, it should surely be on mass public transport – busses and rail infrastructure, which is far less harmful to the environment. The Government prioritises driverless cars, when it should be looking at a carless future.
Bizarrely, targeted investment to address congestion and a focus on support for electric cars, both of which feature in the budget, demonstrate that the Government knows cars are a problem. Air pollution, particularly in big cities, is now a common complaint, with London implementing the T Charge, and Oxford taking steps to ban cars from the city centre. Yet the Government is wedded to the idea that everyone should drive as an ideal, they should just drive less damaging cars on better roads.
Faced with such criticism, the Government might point to the introduction of the new 26-30 railcard as evidence of a commitment to public transport. Yet here again the policy does not go far enough, because the railcard (once it has been negotiated with the rail companies), will only apply to off-peak travel, thus making it next to useless for commuters. Further (much like current housing policy), the focus is on the demand side, rather than the supply. To make rail travel a more appealing option, substantial investment in the network and stock is needed. More, and more pleasant services will in turn encourage increased demand, which should (in a healthy market place) push down prices for travellers.
Beyond transport, Government also seems unwilling to use the levers at its disposal to build a sustainable future. The introduction of a five pence charge for single-use carrier bags in England (following an example set in the other home nations), led to an 85% reduction in the use of such bags in the first six months of the charge. Alongside this positive change in consumer behaviour, and has raised significant sums for charities and community groups. Yet despite this positive evidence, there was no commitment to take similar steps to alter behaviour, for example by charging for disposable hot drinks cups, or introducing a deposit scheme for plastic drinks bottles – only a promise to consult on options.
One final point of condemnation for this budget remains. We cannot ignore the elephant of Brexit, which will damage our ability to cooperate to address global climate change, not to mention mean the duplication of services and the creation of unnecessary infrastructure. This is a budget which meets the political needs of the Conservative Party above all else. The environmental needs of the country and the world can, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, ‘go whistle”.