By Molly Scott Cato, Green Party Financial Spokesperson
Casual readers of the budget might wonder whether it had been written by chancellor George Osborne or George Orwell. A garden city built in a quarry and growth built on a reinflated housing bubble are hardly reassuring evidence of the economy based on “more economic security and economic resilience” that Osborne claims to be his objective.
Most shockingly, the freezing of the carbon tax and the reduction in the rate of air passenger duty for long-haul flights makes it plain that the chancellor has no understanding of what resilience means, and how our failure to tackle climate change threatens it.
Resilience has followed hard on the heels of that much-abused concept ‘sustainability’ in helping to define the key characteristics of a sustainable society. Unlike the financial system, which cracked when it came under pressure, a resilient system would be able to bounce back even in the face of unexpected challenges; unlike the railway line at Dawlish, resilient infrastructure is based on built-in redundancy that means there is always an alternative when a system comes under pressure from an unpredictable event. It is exactly this sort of resilience that has been designed out of our economy and society by years of lean management and just-in-time production systems. From computer systems to food supply chains, the globalised market-place has left us less resilient than we have ever been.
So what would a budget for resilience and security actually look like? Let’s start with finance. A resilient model for banking would insist on the breaking up of the consolidated megabanks so that banks were no longer ‘too big to fail’, and no one bank would be large enough to bring down the whole system. Mr Osborne could pop across to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and have a word with his colleague Vince Cable who operates RBS on behalf of its owners, us, the citizens of the UK. He might subtly suggest that he break it up into a system of local community banks, which could be required to actually act like banks, building supportive relationships with the local businesses that a resilient economy requires, rather than acting like casinos.
While on the issue of finance, we should also tell George that his desperate attempt to reinflate the housing bubble through extending the life of Help to Buy is storing up exactly the sort of catastrophic financial collapse that put us in this economic mess. It also does nothing for those who are most in need of reasonably priced housing, since it will only support mortgages they cannot afford and encourage house prices to rise even further beyond their reach.
The most fundamental cause of social insecurity in modern Britain is the failure of the housing market to provide affordable, comfortable homes to those who need them. Here the chancellor could act swiftly to bring in rent controls which would simultaneously reduce the massive amount of public money being wasted on housing benefit. He could also raise the borrowing limits on local authorities to enable them to build houses for those on their lengthy and growing waiting lists.
The greatest source of insecurity we all face is the unpredictable consequences of climate change, and it is here that Osborne’s words ring most hollow. Here we see clearly the government’s back-tracking on this most vital issue, building on the earlier folly of reducing green levies on energy companies, now further decreasing incentives to business to reduce their carbon emissions by freezing the carbon price floor. He has learned nothing about resilience from the winter’s devastating storms and floods, but the urgent need for a consistent policy on climate change is now more evident than ever.
Real energy security comes from demand reduction as a result of improved energy installation in homes, combined with local generation from renewable energy sources. This government’s mixed messages on renewable tariffs and taxes has undermined several proposed investments in wind generation, destroying jobs in my own home region of the South West. A higher rate of feed-in tariff limited to small-scale and community-owned electricity generation projects would be the best policy in the budget to ensure real energy security.
With a budget that achieves the exact opposite of the objectives the chancellor has set himself we are all wondering what will come out of the Ministry of Truth next. A Localism Act that centralises planning perhaps; or a Big Society that cuts benefits for the poor and vulnerable?
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