Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is part of a Government that has been known to give off mixed messages and today’s Budget was a further example of that – portraying himself as a man of the people despite prepping for Budget day in £95 sliders.
It is therefore a challenge to sincerely believe the Chancellor’s claims today’s Budget will help those at the bottom of society. Yes, the eight per cent reduction in the taper level for Universal Credit was a genuine rabbit out of the hat (going even further than the 3 per cent cut that had been doing the rounds last minute on Twitter), but when it follows a reduction worth £20 a week to struggling families amid a cost of living crisis, is it simply a sticking plaster on a much more fundamental wound?
The Government is committed to levelling up as a strategy for healing a fractured society and promoting greater regional equality, and today saw some positive steps to bolster that vision. Chief among them was the promise of £11.5bn worth of investment to fund 180,000 new affordable homes and a further £1.8bn for the regeneration of brownfield sites – a policy likely motivated by the Government’s crushing by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham earlier this year. Industry has claimed the Government needs to move away from CGI housing and towards getting the affordable homes built that people need and today’s announcements should help that.
That levelling up would not just be reserved for English regions or traditional Conservative strongholds was a message the Chancellor was keen to impress upon his audience today. Though not all ‘new money’ – a common theme throughout today’s Budget – the £5.7bn for London-style transport settlements for regional hubs is another welcome boost and statement of intent. It is crucial, however, that this supplements existing funding for intercity transport infrastructure isn’t a sweetener to soften the blow if (or when) HS2 and Northern Power House Rail fall by the wayside.
The Chancellor also claimed to be ‘levelling up the Labour front bench’ as he announced the recipients of the first round of the Levelling Up Fund – a clear attempt to try and dispel previous accusations such schemes were simply a vehicle for pork barrel politics. There were also frequent references to increases in funding for all of the devolved institutions as the Chancellor stressed the Union was much more than a transactional arrangement.
For high streets that have taken a kicking during the pandemic, the reform and cutting of business rates is unlikely to provide bricks and mortar stores with a competitive edge over their online counterparts, but it does give hope that they may live to fight another day.
Away from levelling up, the Chancellor failed to deliver on widespread expectations of a green Budget with net zero at its core. It took over 20 minutes for him to first mention net zero, and with COP26 less than a week away green campaigners will have been horrified by his slashing of air passenger duty on internal flights. Though he can point to increases in duty on long haul flights, the reaction to the Prime Minister’s trip to this summer’s G7 conference was a warning that now was not the time to be making such pledges.
Recent announcements promoting heat pump grants have also been seen as a positive step on the road to decarbonising Britain’s housing stock, but the lack of funding for a coherent retrofitting policy is a significant omission that will almost certainly encourage more protests.
Britain’s green spaces also need significant care and attention, but it’s unclear if the Chancellor is committed to addressing this despite their value to society being highlighted during the pandemic. Though £200m for new pitches might help football come home, the £9m to be invested in ‘pocket parks’ is frankly little more than pocket money for the Government and will leave many disappointed.
This was a confused speech from the Chancellor today. It was a Budget where the Chancellor gave back to those at the bottom of society with one hand what he had effectively taken away less than a month ago. Where, not half an hour after Boris Johnson spent the majority of PMQs defending the Government’s record on climate change, air passenger duty was reduced and fuel duty was frozen for the 12th consecutive year. And where one of the loudest cheers greeted the news that per pupil funding for schools would return to 2010 levels.
For a Budget where build up has drawn controversy, the Government offered little in the way of substance today in comparison to previous Budgets, with old promises reaffirmed and repeated. This may suit the levelling up agenda which is undoubtedly setting forth on a strong trail, but if climate change is to be tackled then more needs to be done and fast.