Budget 2013: Osborne does it best when he does nothing at all

“The last thing we need is more tinkering”.

Asked what he wanted from next week’s budget, one successful entrepreneur I spoke to this week replied “not much".

A couple of others in the same discussion agreed. None had a list of proposals at the ready. It wasn’t that they don’t care what Mr Osborne says (although all agreed their focus was more on their businesses), it’s more that they want him to do very little. It fits with the general theme I hear from business that the government’s role should be to create a positive growth environment and then get out of the way.

And with the national finances in a pickle, the entrepreneurs were unanimous that the boldest thing Mr Osborne could do was nothing.

“The last thing we need is more tinkering,” said one. Her point is one ICAEW made in its submission to George Osborne, in which it suggested that instability in tax policymaking undermines future confidence. Whatever the good intentions, the culture of constant change in the tax system ends up leading to complexity.

After last year’s omnishambles, Osborne might himself wish he could get away with doing nothing. But with forecasters pointing to a triple-dip recession, sitting on his hands isn’t a political option for Osborne any more than it’s an economic one.

Assuming he ignores calls (some from within the coalition) for a switch to a plan B, or a plan A+, and instead sticks rigidly to fiscal austerity, he will have very limited scope for manoeuvre. As a result, rather like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, he’ll be using all the political trickery, smoke and mirrors he can to create the illusion of doing lots to help the country (and will be especially keen to be seen to help what he calls strivers and “the working poor”) without really being able to do a great deal.

The best outcome for business would be a Budget that really grasps the need to inject growth and confidence into the economy. As ICAEW explained in its Budget submission, this means putting in place the right mechanisms for getting finance to small businesses. This doesn’t mean another rebranding of the government’s lending scheme (which has already been re-launched on several occasions) but it does mean getting the proposed Business Bank up and running properly. It requires the funds already made available, whether through the Local Enterprise Partnerships or other mechanisms such as Funding for Lending to actually get to the frontline.

Accepting the limited scope for action open to the chancellor, combined with the need for a little political magic, (these occasions are often as much about pulling political rabbits out of the hat as they are sensible economics) there will doubtless be a whole raft of changes to various types of taxation.

Personal allowances will be raised, some commentators are expecting a tactical reduction in VAT (possibly for the hospitality sector), while others point to a continuing reduction in corporation tax (this one coming into force in 2014).

In the absence of much room for real action, it is fair to assume there will be a number of consultations announced into a whole host of potential schemes many of which will never amount to much, but which look good on the day.

There will be the usual media flurry listing winners and losers from the budget, all filtered through the current political lens of austerity and Labour’s constant jibe that the Tories are more concerned with helping the rich than the poor.

It’s hard to think that there would be more winners if Mr Osborne listened to the entrepreneurs and made next week’s the shortest Budget in history.

This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.