Osborne's £12bn black hole

Without further cuts and tax rises, Osborne will likely miss his pledge to eliminate the structural

As the Lib Dems fight in Birmingham to emphasise their "distinctiveness", it's worth remembering that they and the Tories are at one on the need to stick to George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. Like Cameron and Osborne, Clegg and Cable argue that the adoption of a "plan B" would trigger a dramatic loss of confidence in Britain and a rise in interest rates. As Clegg told Andrew Marr on Sunday: "Does anyone seriously think that by ripping up the plan to balance the books, that somehow you will create growth by next Tuesday? It is a complete illusion. Actually what you would create is outright market panic, higher interest rates and more unemployment."

The coalition has pledged to meet two fiscal targets by the end of this parliament - the elimination of the structural deficit and a reduced debt-to-GDP ratio. But lower-than-expected growth (as the graph below shows, forecasters have slashed their 2011 growth predictions), reduced tax revenues, and higher-than-expected unemployment means that both goals are in doubt. Osborne was forced to announce an extra £44.5bn of borrowing at the Budget in March and the economic picture has only darkened since.

Average of independent forecasts for 2011

A

Source: Treasury.

Today's FT offers confirmation of the Chancellor's woes. The paper replicated the model of government borrowing used by the OBR and found that the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that remains even after growth returns) is set to be £12bn higher-than-expected. Consequently, without further spending cuts and/or tax rises, it's likely that Osborne will miss his pledge to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15, and he may not even meet it in 2015-16. Judging by this prognosis, all thought of a pre-election "giveaway" should be abandoned. Indeed, austerity may well last into the next parliament. The FT notes that plugging the black hole at the next Budget would require the equivalent of raising VAT from 20 per cent to 22.5 per cent. But if I was Osborne I'd be more inclined to adopt a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax" in addition to other taxes on property and land. Polls show strong public support for new wealth taxes.

Of course, Osborne and his allies will argue that all of this vindicates the government's approach. If even the coalition's austerity measures can't eliminate the structural deficit, how would Labour do? But the opposition, in the person of Ed Balls, will rightly reply that it was Osborne's decision to cut (and tax) too hard and too early, that led to reduced growth and, consequently, a slower pace of deficit reduction. The widening gap in the public finances could turn the fiscal debate on its head - and not a moment too soon.

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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