What do we already know about today's Budget?

Today's Budget is one of the most leaky ever. Here is a breakdown of the measures already trailed.

You would be forgiven for thinking that George Osborne's Budget speech today is simply a formality, given the amount of material that has already been leaked. Here is a summary of what has already been trailed, in what must be one of the most leaked Budgets ever.

50p tax

It looks nearly certain that the Chancellor will scrap the top rate of tax, which applies to those earning over £150,000. Rather than abolishing it outright, it will be reduced from 50p in the pound to 45p. This lays the groundwork for getting rid of it entirely next year, and reverting to 40p as the highest rate of tax.

Tax avoidance clampdown

To offset this tax cut for the rich, Osborne has promised to "come down like a ton of bricks" on those who avoid stamp duty. The annual charge on non-domiciled residents will also be upped from £30,000 to £50,000. It's worth noting that the higher rate was floated last year but did not materialise. In today's FT, Martin Taylor says we should not expect this tax clampdown to work.

Stamp duty

In a small victory for the Lib Dems, who have long been lobbying for some form of property tax, stamp duty is to be raised from 5 per cent to 7 per cent on properties worth more than £2m. This measure should raise £2.2bn to help fund the increase in the income tax threshold.

Raising the income tax threshold

Osborne will accelerate plans to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000. This move, heavily touted by the Liberal Democrats, will apply to all 23 million basic tax-rate payers and many higher earners, too. Osborne is likely to announce a large short-term increase, with plans to reach the £10,000 mark by April 2014, long before it was scheduled.

Regional pay deals

Public sector workers in poorer areas of the country will be paid lower salaries - in some cases, as early as next month. Osborne will argue that the public sector should be more like the private sector and reflect local economies, but critics say it will accentuate the economic divide between north and south. It was unclear whether the new rates would apply only to new staff or to existing staff as well. The Treasury insisted that no current employee would suffer a pay cut - rather, rates would be adjusted over time.

Sunday trading hours

The Chancellor will force through emergency legislation lifting the six-hour limit on opening hours for larger stores, in a bid to boost the economy. The restrictions will be lifted on eight weekends over the summer, to coincide with the Olympics and Paralympics. This could open the door for the restrictions to be scrapped altogether.

Tax transparency

Taxpayers will be given a breakdown of where their tax money is going, from the NHS, to defence, to unemployment benefits.

TV tax breaks

The government will launch a consultation on tax breaks for high-budget British television dramas, such as the wildly successful Downton Abbey.

Royal Mail privatisation

In a radical move, the government will take on all the assets and liabilities of the Royal Mail's pension fund, taking responsibility for paying postal workers' pensions for decades to come. This will open the door for the privatisation of the postal service: the pension fund, which has a shortfall of £9.5m, would make it impossible to attract a private sector buyer.

Planning laws to be relaxed

Osborne has said he is "deeply frustrated" with the slowness of the planning process, and will announce new legislation to make it easier to build in the countryside. This will clear the way for more homes and infrastructure to be built - but it may further undermine the coalition's claim to be "the greenest government ever". Regulations protecting wildlife are expected to be scrapped as part of this drive.

International aid

It looks as if the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid will be maintained.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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.