So he announced a Green budget with a great flourish. To his credit he has committed to undertaking an investigation into possibly doing something about single use plastics at some future date. Not my idea of decisive positive action but owts better than nowt. By comparison there was real additional cash for north sea oil and gas. There was also a freeze on airport duties. There were caps on petrol duty. These are big spending commitments that went in the direction of supporting production and consumption of fossil fuels. The actions were the exact opposite of the words apart from a token gesture of taxing diesel cars.
Then he promised to help young people with their housing needs. Indeed this was at the centre of his budget according to him. Unfortunately he did nothing at all to increase security of tenure for the 70% of young people who rent. Instead he scrapped stamp duty for first time buyers of properties under £300,000 and once again lauded the Right to Buy Scheme. Minutes after wasting billions on this he was informed by his own Office of Budget Responsibility that getting rid of stamp duty would simply put up the cost of a home. He was therefore using taxpayers money to subsidise home sellers not helping young buyers. Once again he ignored the most workable solution – which is to use any available money as deposit funding against a major council house building programme that allows councils to securely retain the properties they borrow to build. That would provide homes for need.
Instead of building for need he went all out to help major Tory donors. Building developers will be ‘freed up’ from pesky planning constraints. Enabling them to cover the countryside with large executive homes for the wealthy. He made some noises about helping to bring difficult sites into use. The truth is these were window dressing compared to need. It will take a serious investment programme in inner cities to transform places like Stoke on Trent or Bradford into attractive and commercially viable areas to build or to renovate. He talked of bringing difficult sites into use. He delivered the end of meaningful protection or planning. Say goodbye to the Green Belt.
To be fair the heavy divergences in regional needs did feature in Hammonds sound bites. The Northern Powerhouse and Midland Engines are not forgotten. They are still useful propaganda phrases. As for actual money what he did was to continue the policy of putting more new money per head into transport investment for London and the South East and re-announcing and re-cycling the same money again and again for the north and the regions. Provided they accept wasteful bureaucratic schemes for local government re-organisation under mayors the north can have back less money than it currently gets if you allow for inflation. Along with drastic financial cuts for local government that cripple local services.
When it came to the Health Service Hammond was all heart. He provided the extra £350 million that was promised in the Brexit campaign. The only slight difficulty was that the money was for an entire year not once a week. Oh and ignored the cost of any pay rises awarded in a long overdue pay review. In real terms that counts as a cut.
The same happened to education. Nice announcements about money for maths and money for training inner city teachers. Cruel refusals to face up to budget cuts of 5% in most schools and a pay rise to fund.
Then there were some fantastic noises about an Industrial Strategy. Making it possible to get excited that we really might be about to understand the scale of the economic transformation that is about to take place and to get ourselves ready for it. Unless you listened carefully to where the money was going. A few token gestures towards scientific research and development and a lot of money on new roads accompanied by continued support for an over-priced nuclear vanity scheme and serious absence of support for alternative energy generation.
Money was found to fund Brexit. A whole £3 billion. Which is just as well if we’ve got to put up borders and employ an army of customs officers. He tactfully avoided pointing out that it was supposed to save us money or mentioning why the supposed divorce payments didn’t need to feature in the budget (clue: they are payments we’re already committed to but he doesn’t want to admit that). He also tactfully avoided pointing out that the slowing up in growth that had starved him of money to fund vital services could be directly traced to the impact of Brexit. That wouldn’t have gone down well with the fanatics behind him and he wanted to keep his job.
In launching his rightly scathing attack on all this Corbyn showed his true colours. One of his leading accusations was that Hammond was failing to prepare properly for the opportunities of Brexit. One of my leading accusations is that both Labour and Conservatives are leading the nation into a serious mistake that it will take us generations to recover from.
Quietly, without many people noticing, Hammond slipped in a phrase that showed that he probably realises how damaging Brexit has already been. He mentioned Britain’s proud position as the 6th largest economy in the world. I suspect he knew full well what he was saying. He was reminding us all that the proud boast of the Leavers were that it would all be so easy because we were the 5th largest economy and everyone would want to trade with us.
We’ve slipped already from 5th to 6th place. How much further are we going to go with this quality of leadership and this quality of opposition?