UK Government all at sea

| 6th December 2013
Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
Yesterday Chancellor George Osborne delivered his Autumn Statement to a braying House of Commons. For Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, his speech was a glorious exposition of stupidity and deliberate ignorance. No wonder his backbenchers loved it ...
Entirely lacking in this Autumn Statement was any sense - certainly widespread among voters - that we need to transform the British economy.

A detail about yesterday's Autumn Statement delivered by the Chancellor: there were five paragraphs about fracking and one about renewable energy.

It's a curious if telling fact, given that there is not one single shale gas well producing in Britain, yet renewable energy will be producing 20% of our electricity by 2020.

It's also telling that this is a government that's cut subsidies for on-shore wind, which 68% of the British public support, while raising subsidies for shale gas, to which there's strong public opposition.

That's in addition to the £2bn in corporate welfare that the oil and gas industries enjoy each year.

And, for the knockout punch on any claims to greenness (or humanity) for this statement, there's the confirmation of pre-announced cuts to the already grossly inadequate ECO scheme to insulate the hard-to-treat homes of some of our poorest citizens.

That's just an insult to the massive injury to our national wellbeing of this government's failure to seriously engage with the poor quality of our housing stock overall, which means more than 20% of the energy we use to heat our homes is wasted.

Installing energy efficiency measures could, the Association for the Conservation of Energy says, take £500 a year off the bill of a typical household: compare that to the £50 Osborne is promising, and also a lot more, and a lot longer-lasting, than Labour's price freeze plan.

Beyond shale gas, there were even more fossil-fueled shenanigans: the Chancellor has abolished the fuel duty escalator, yet this soon after the government was fighting furiously in Europe to water down engine efficiency standards that would not only cut drivers' costs but also carbon emissions.

He has cut planned rises in train fares by 1%, to "just" RPI - a real rise in terms of household incomes, which are rising far slower than that measure, and an extremely late decision that's surely going to cause administrative turmoil in our fragmented, chaotic privatised rail industry. Some of the tickets affected have, after all, already been on sale for months.

But that means the relative cost of motoring and train travel will still be slanted even further in the car's favour - supported by the government's elsewhere announced plans to spend vast sums on roads dismissed as uneconomic and ineffective in relieving congestion in the 1980s.

That's condemning Britons to expensive future transport, when investment in better public transport, particularly walking, cycling, local buses and local trains, would give Britons sensible (and with reasonable pricing) far-more-affordable options with public transport.

So when the Chancellor talking about "not costing the earth" a hollow laugh is sadly the appropriate response, even outside the highly theatrical setting of the House of Commons.

But even more than this, what was entirely lacking in this Autumn Statement was any sense - certainly widespread among voters - that we need to transform the British economy.

The government started in 2010 showing at least rhetorical signs of understanding this - talking about "rebalancing" the economy away from the financial sector and retail, making things (and with even the occasional note of the need to grow things - thinking about food security).

The current economic conditions, which Mr Osborne was celebrating so effusively, are a product of record levels of consumer debt (as workers borrow to supplement inadequate wages) and a growing housing price bubble, particularly in London and the South East.

The Chancellor is clearly very keen to keep these going until the election, but we all know this isn't any kind of longterm solution for Britain.

This week I went to a briefing on the proposed Swansea Bay lagoon project, planned as one of five around the country that within a decade supplying 10% of our electricity needs, with about three quarters of the content made in Britain.

Wouldn't it make a change if the Chancellor was talking about that, and providing a stable, secure investment environment also for on-shore wind and solar power, instead of further chopping away at their supports?

By Natalie Bennett is the Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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