Osborne’s “progressive” façade

Talk of a “fair and progressive” Budget disguises how cuts will hit the poorest hardest.

The coalition is determined to present today's Budget as "fair and progressive", with tax rises for the richest and tax cuts for the poorest. But does the rhetoric match the reality?

On tax, George Osborne will point to the plan (first mooted by the Lib Dems) to raise the personal tax allowance by £1,000 to £7,475, a move that will take 850,000 of the lowest-paid out of income tax altogether.

But this measure isn't as progressive as it initially appears. For a start, those individuals too poor to pay tax in the first place will gain nothing from the move. In 2009-2010, only 62 per cent of the adult population earned enough to pay income tax. Should the measure be combined with a rise in regressive VAT, the overall effect may be far from progressive.

But it's only once we take account of the likely spending cuts that any claim this Budget will be "progressive" falls apart. The coalition's decision to rely on spending cuts, rather than tax rises, to plug the deficit will have disastrous consequences for the poor.

With spending in non-ring-fenced departments poised to fall by up to 25 per cent, it is the poorest who will be hardest hit. As I noted yesterday, an analysis by the Financial Times showed that cuts would hit large parts of the north twice as hard as the south.

Today's FT contains a succinct explanation:

Spending cuts of such a scale could not be presented as "progressive" because public spending is concentrated in poorer areas and poorer families, suggesting that the Budget will have a sting in the tail.

Will Osborne, a better politician than he is an economist, have the chutzpah to claim that his cuts are "progressive"? If he does, Labour will be presented with an open goal.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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