Osborne prepares to admit defeat on debt reduction

The Chancellor will abandon his debt rule to prevent even deeper cuts.

In his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, Osborne declared that "unless we deal with our debts there will be no growth". But as all Keynesians know, the reverse is true. Unless you stimulate growth, you can't deal with your debts. According to the latest independent forecasts, Osborne will be forced to borrow £174.9bn more than originally planned from 2012-16, a figure that is only likely to rise as growth remains anaemic or non-existent.

Indeed, so bad is the fiscal situation, that, as today's Times reports (£), Osborne is preparing to announce the abandonment of his golden debt rule in the Autumn Statement on 5 December. The rule, which forms the second part of his "fiscal mandate" (the first relates to the structural deficit, which the Chancellor aims to eliminate over a rolling five-year period), is designed to "ensure that debt is falling as a share of GDP by 2015-16". Based on the most recent set of forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, published at the time of the Budget, debt will decline from 76.3 per cent in 2014-15 before dropping to 76 per cent in 2015-16. But since then, the economy has fallen back into recession, with borrowing already up by more than a quarter on last year. As a result, independent forecasters now say that Osborne will miss his target. The IMF, for instance, has forecast that debt will rise from 78.8 per cent of GDP in 2014-15 to 79.9 per cent in 2015-16.

In response, the Chancellor could, of course, announce billions more in tax rises and spending cuts. But that would only further reduce growth, meaning that he might miss his target anyway, and would hardly endear him to voters already bruised by austerity. Thus, as the Times reports, Osborne, with David Cameron's agreement, "is ready to take a political hit on missing the target rather than face the "nightmare" of further cuts."

For the Chancellor, the consequences could be grim. The abandonment of the debt rule would dismay his party's fiscal conservatives, and could trigger the loss of the UK's AAA credit rating, the metric by which he has set such stock. But it could also offer Osborne one final chance to redeem himself. Once he accepts that debt reduction should not be prioritised over growth, the menu of policy options expands accordingly. Indeed, a  well-sourced leader (£) in yesterday's Times suggested that the Chancellor was even considering a small stimulus. And why not? With the UK able to borrow at the lowest interest rates for 300 years, it is only Osborne's political pride that has prevented a change of course thus far. Even the IMF has said that a reduced pace of deficit reduction would not lead to a rise in UK bond yields. Freed from his fiscal straitjacket, Osborne would finally be liberated to pursue a policy that works.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.