There are budgets that go down in history as a turning point in the nation’s fortunes. That set a clear and resolute course to steer for the betterment of the British polity, economy and society. The budget presented to Parliament yesterday by the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not one of these. Instead, it was – at best – a placeholder. The political equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. An admission that, quite frankly, what will happen in the next twelve months is anyone’s guess.
The headline message was clear. The public finances have reached a turning point. Austerity is over and a brighter future beckons. This was accompanied by good news announcements in the sorts of things that make it into the BBC’s ‘how the budget affects you’ bullet points. An increase in the personal allowance. A bump to the national living wage. A new tax on digital conglomerates. A freeze on duty for beer, spirits and fuel.
The Chancellor presented the state of the economy as a good news story, too. Outperforming forecasts left, right and centre. Economic growth predicted in the years ahead. Higher productivity as the path to rising living standards. Which all sounds good. But growth of around 1.6% a year is hardly anything to boast about. And given the current uncertainty about Brexit, any forecast at all is – if we’re being honest – somewhat of a guess.
There are some genuinely positive aspects to the budget, of course. A massive cash injection for the NHS is to be welcomed, even if it has already been announced about fifteen times and still seems contingent on next year’s spending review. And official confirmation of the removal of the borrowing cap for local authority housebuilding may actually do some good, if (a) local authorities can afford the cost of borrowing and (b) they can find someone to lend them the money.
A short-term discount on business rates for smaller retailers, though, seems like a bit of a sop to the business lobby. And is further evidence that Chancellors just can’t stop messing around with business rates, preferably without consulting with the local authorities that have to administer them. The exemption from business rates of public lavatories is yet more – and somewhat bizarre – evidence of this.
Thankfully, the budget documents clarify that local authorities will be compensated for the loss of income that ensues from these giveaways. Hopefully in cash, rather than jelly babies – though the Treasury’s notes are not explicit on this point.
An additional few billion pounds for Universal Credit sound great, too. Until you realise that this apparent generosity is more of an admission that the Government’s flagship welfare reform just hadn’t been funded properly in the first place. Like a housebuilder saying that, on balance, he’s decided to put a roof on, after all.
And an extra £400m to help schools in England ‘buy the little extras they need’, equivalent to £10,000 per primary school and £50,000 per secondary school, is nothing short of an insult. Schools don’t need the ‘little extras’. They need teachers to teach our children, buildings that don’t leak and books to fill their libraries.
The most notable thing about this budget, though, is what it does not include. It lacks any real discussion of the potential impact of Brexit. It does nothing to address the funding crisis in local government. And, despite a slew of warnings in the last few weeks from organisations around the world, it remains silent on climate change, biodiversity loss and the blatant unsustainability of our global economic system.
This was a budget for the sake of it. A budget that tried not to ruffle any feathers. A budget that seeks to give a nonchalant air of business as usual, while the country teeters on the edge of a political and economic cliff.