The budget yesterday was the product of an extremely confused ideology. It was not grounded in reality and most worryingly places the public, particularly their health and England’s countryside in the firing line.
As the Budget Statement says: “The first duty of government is to ensure the safety and security of the country and its people”. Two of the biggest threats to the UK’s health and well-being are from climate change and toxic air pollution. The former is already fuelling unrest and migration and causing economic damage, while the latter kills at least 29,000 people a year in the UK and that’s just from particulates (small soot particles) and doesn’t include nitrogen oxides and other chemicals.
Toxic air pollution is the second biggest killer annually in the UK and the vast majority is due to transport. So you would have thought there would be big reforms to tackle this threat to the British public. But no, the headline was about protecting the public through increasing military defence spending and spending more on counter terrorism measures.
While these measures may be important, putting it into perspective, we don’t lose that many people a year to terrorism and certainly nowhere near 29,000.
To add insult to injury, the chancellor has increased subsidies to fossil fuels and put in place more measures to encourage fracking. However, it is his promise that all money raised by the new Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) in England from 2020-21 will be spent on the strategic road network that is most worrying. By 2020-21 the VED is expected to raise over £6 billion across the UK, which would equate to around £5 billion a year in England. Currently, Highways England spends less than £1 billion a year maintaining the strategic roads network, so this new Roads Fund could potentially unleash a tidal wave of new road building.
This would create considerable damage to rural areas, particularly National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Unless there is going to be an extensive commitment to long tunnels (at Arundel and Stonehenge for example) and to spending money retrofitting the existing strategic road network to repair some of the damage done to date, such as at Twyford Down and the Brighton bypass, more of our green and peasant land will be lost under tarmac.
Additionally, history tells us that building new roads creates new traffic and these new roads are just going to create more congestion and pollution. This is going to undermine attempts to reduce air pollution below legal limits and perpetuate tens of thousands of premature and avoidable deaths every year. It is also going to make it much harder for us to meet international obligations to reduce our carbon emissions.
So while the chancellor might be saving us from the threat of terrorism, he will oversee a system that inflicts much larger death rates due to air pollution and causes the destruction of our countryside. In short, what will there be worth saving us for?