On Budget Day, MPs and journalists joke about it being a ‘quiet day’ and ‘not much going on’ as they pass one another in the corridors of Westminster (this is an accurate representation of how utterly hilarious the corridors of power normally are). Today’s Budget was in a number of respects rather quiet, especially in the things it totally missed out.
Philip Hammond didn’t even mention social care, despite the sector's concerns about whether it can afford a massive back pay bill that has come up partly as a result of a court judgement and partly as a result of government dithering. This comes on top of the long-term sustainability question, which the government is avoiding addressing in any meaningful sense for another few years, planning merely a consultative green paper on the matter next summer.
The Chancellor also avoided announcing major planning reforms, having told the chamber that reform was an important part of getting more homes built. Instead, he said the government would focus on urban areas ‘where people want to live’, building high-density homes and continuing the ‘strong protections’ for the green belt. That’s code for ‘we’re not going to upset shire England or our own backbenchers’. This is much more Theresa May’s doing than Hammond’s, as she is the most wary of upsetting the troops, particularly given that her own constituency contains green belt. But Sajid Javid didn’t win his public bid for the government to borrow more to build new homes, either.
The Chancellor also paid the usual homage to ‘our NHS’, which he claimed was a ‘source of pride’ up and down the country, before announcing much smaller amounts of funding than that requested by NHS chief executive Simon Stevens. Stevens warned that cancer and mental health care could deteriorate without at least £4bn more in 2018/19, and that the government was ‘underfunding our health services by £20bn to £30bn a year’. Hammond announced a package that he said was ‘£3.75bn in total’, but this applies to the period 2018-20, rather than the annual demand made by Stevens. There was only one mention of mental health at all, and that was in relation to helping the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
What do all these things have in common? They’re long-term problems that successive governments have failed to tackle. It is easy to hope that someone else might be able to square with the public about the cost of a properly-funded social care system, or the changes that the NHS needs in order to survive, or indeed what proper reform of the planning system might entail. It was striking that Hammond told the chamber at the start of his statement that ‘in this Budget we will lay the foundations’ of a Britain ‘we can be proud of, a country fit for [the] future’. The Tories have been in government for seven years now and are only talking about laying the foundations – which would surely count as the sort of land banking of which the Chancellor disapproves. On that matter, he has commissioned an urgent review on planning permission to understand the gap between planning permission and housing starts. Perhaps he should commission an urgent review into the strange discrepancy between governments acknowledging that there is a problem, and then doing anything meaningful about it.