Rishi Sunack accused of undermining the UK’s response to the climate emergency

Rishi Sunak cuts taxes on domestic flights days before Cop26 climate summit

[At the specific request of Simon Jupp MP and Andrew Bowie, MP (Aberdeen) in the Times “Red Box”]

www.independent.co.uk

Rishi Sunak has been accused of undermining the UK’s response to the climate emergency, after his Budget included measures to make it cheaper to take internal flights and drive cars that emit greenhouse gases.

The moves – branded “astonishing” and “retrograde” by Friends of the Earth – were unveiled just days ahead of the crucial Cop26 global warming summit in Glasgow, at which Boris Johnson will plead with the international community to cut carbon emissions.

And they came just a day after the government’s own Climate Change Committee (CCC) told the prime minister that his administration’s net zero strategy had “nothing to say” on aviation and must take further action to discourage people from flying.

Environmentalists said that a Budget statement that spent longer on the reform of alcohol duty than the government’s net zero targets would effectively “extend the age of fossil fuels” in the UK.

In a Budget that he said would lay the foundations for an “economy fit for a new age of optimism”, the chancellor said he wanted to make internal air travel cheaper in order to “cut the cost of living”.

From April 2023, air passenger duty (APD) on flights between airports in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be reduced from £13 to £6.50 per leg, offset by increased rates for long-haul routes.

Mr Sunak claimed the policy – costing the Treasury £275m between now and 2026-27 – would “help cut the cost of living, with 9 million passengers seeing their duty cut by half”.

“It will bring people together across the United Kingdom, and – because they tend to have a greater proportion of domestic passengers – it is a boost to regional airports like Aberdeen, Inverness and Southampton, which are major regional employers,” he said.

But the policy effectively pushes passengers to switch from rail to flying, by cutting the price of internal flights at a time when rail fares are set to see their biggest rise in a decade.

It is the polar opposite of what is being done in some other European countries, which have increasingly moved to restrict domestic air travel where rail alternatives are available.

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast it would result in around 410,000 more passenger journeys a year (a 3.5 per cent rise).

And the new £91 “ultra-long-haul band” of APD will affect just 5 per cent of passengers, as it applies only to flights over 5,500 miles.

The chancellor also confirmed he would extend state support to English airports for a further six months to “help them get through the winter”.

And he continued the practice of all Conservative chancellors since 2010 by freezing fuel duty, a policy that has made it increasingly cheaper to travel by car than to use more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

The twelfth successive year of frozen taxes on petrol and diesel will cost the Treasury £1.6bn annually and a total of £7.9bn by 2026-27.

According to the OBR, motorists have benefitted to the tune of £65bn from the freeze since 2010, compared to a rise in line with inflation, making it one of the government’s most generous tax cuts. Mr Sunak said it had saved the average car driver £1,600 over the period.

This year’s freeze alone was predicted by the OBR to increase purchases of fossil fuels by 450 million litres over the next five years.

In a statement earlier this week, the CCC – a statutory body that advises the government on its climate change targets – said options for reining in the growth in aviation should be “explored further with a view to early action”.

The CCC said: “The government does not include an explicit ambition on … reductions in the growth of aviation, and policies for managing travel demand have not been developed to match the funding that has been committed.”

Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs responded with horror to the Budget package.

“Cutting APD on domestic flights is an astonishing move that completely flies in the face of the climate emergency,” he said. “The chancellor should be making it cheaper for people to travel around the country by train, not carbon-guzzling planes.

“APD for all flights should have been increased, or even better, replaced with a frequent flyers levy, aimed at curbing multiple flights taken by a minority of people each year.

“As the prime minister prepares to host next week’s crucial climate summit, this retrograde step is another illustration that the government’s carbon reduction plans don’t add up.”

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said Mr Sunak was “actively making things worse by making it cheaper to fly between UK cities”, while James Thornton, chief executive of environmental law charity ClientEarth, said the announcement on fuel and domestic flight duties “goes against everything we know about climate change” and warned that the UK had “missed a crucial chance to lead by example”.

Luke Murphy, head of the environmental justice commission at the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said Mr Sunak had “used the Budget to extend the age of fossil fuels”.

“Cutting air passenger duty was the most significant new policy mentioned in the Budget speech today, which will have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions – and it will increase them. Rishi Sunak talked for longer about beer duty than our duty to future generations to address the climate and nature crises,” he said.

“The truth is, this climate-void, fossil-fuel-heavy Budget failed to deliver the necessary £30bn of investment needed each year to meet our climate and nature targets.”

And Sam Alvis, head of green renewal at Green Alliance, said the chancellor’s approach to climate was “increasingly difficult to understand”.

“Just days away from a vital climate conference championed by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak barely mentions net zero and encourages people to fly around the UK rather than take the train. The measure on air passenger duty will even cost the Treasury money rather than boost its revenue,” he said.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow energy and climate secretary, said: “Another Budget from the chancellor which failed on both the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis.

“No green recovery, no plan to save families £400 on bills, no plan for green steel. Working people will pay the price of Tory climate delay.”

Sir Patrick: UK in ‘very uncertain phase’ of Covid pandemic

The UK is still in a “very uncertain phase” of the pandemic, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser has said.

Max Channon www.devonlive.com

Sir Patrick Vallance told the Today programme: “There is considerable uncertainty into which direction this goes,” he said.

“It’s wrong to think that the build up of immunity is an all or nothing – it’s a sort of protective barrier that will reduce the spread of the virus so we need to monitor this carefully over the next weeks and months.

He added: “You need to absolutely be prepared (for plan B) and as soon as you start thinking ‘am I, or am I not going to do this? It looks close’ is the time you need to push beyond your natural reluctance to do it and do it.

“This is obviously something the government will have to consider carefully but we need to be ready to move fast if that occurs.”

The Government’s chief scientific adviser said the models around what will happen with Covid-19 are “quite uncertain at the moment” and there is a lot of variability.

Sir Patrick Vallance told BBC Breakfast: “Nobody is really clear which direction this is going in, but they are clear about the two big variables that could change that.

“One is waning immunity, so if immunity wanes faster than expected, you’ll see a bigger increase, and that’s why it’s so important to get booster shots going in the vulnerable and the elderly in particular.

“The second is the behavioural change, how quickly we return to pre-pandemic behaviours… if you aggregate the models, most are saying ‘Actually, it looks fairly flat, don’t expect the very big peaks we’ve had in the past, it looks fairly flat, but at a very high level at the moment.’

“So the high level remains a concern and from a high level you can go up quite quickly.”

He said that, as immunity builds from vaccination and infection in children, “there will be a resistance to transmissions (and) you may expect that (surge in children) to level off”.

Asked if more than 40,000 Covid cases a day is a level that can be dealt with and is acceptable, he said: “Well, that’s a societal question.

“There are high levels, and those high levels, of course, translate into levels of hospitalisation, but the levels of hospitalisation are very much reduced by vaccination.

“The lower the levels, the better in terms of overall overall outcome, but there are costs and consequences of decisions in both directions there.

“So that’s a societal question about what levels are acceptable.

“I will say though – and it’s an important point to make – that, as this infection becomes gradually becomes endemic, it will occur year on year, we will see this circulating every winter, I suspect, in particular.

“And so, gradually, as immunity builds, the protection will be there, the consequences will be reduced, but we’re not not there yet.

“We’ve still got, clearly, people going into hospital, it’s still a significant risk.”

Yesterday, the Government said a further 207 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, bringing the UK total to 140,041.

Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 165,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

As of 9am on Wednesday, there had been a further 43,941 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK, the Government said.

Meanwhile Sir Keir Starmer is the fourth MP to test positive in the past week. Masks are compulsory for staff but optional for MPs. Jacob Rees-Mogg pointedly didn’t wear one during the budget speech. – Owl

Coronavirus: Case rates in Devon and Cornwall

Here are the latest rates of cases of Covid-19 in Devon and Cornwall.

www.bbc.co.uk

The figures show the number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the seven days up to and including 23 October, with the previous week’s numbers in brackets.

The breakdown of the figures by local authority area is:

  • Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – 495 (down from 550)
  • Plymouth – 528 (up from 465)
  • Exeter – 432 (up from 326)
  • Mid Devon – 592 (down from 635)
  • East Devon – 567 (up from 501)
  • Torbay – 490 (up from 423)
  • Teignbridge – 510 (up from 413)
  • South Hams – 517 (up from 408)
  • West Devon – 622 (no change)
  • North Devon – 500 (up from 463)
  • Torridge – 493 (down from 540)

For comparison, the figure for England is 480.

Owl adds a screenshot of the latest Devon Covid Dashboard for interest. This shows the confirmed case rates in East Devon by age from the beginning of the pandemic. Please remember that testing was very limited at the start, and despite the criticism of “test and trace”, testing has become more widespread.

“Muddled, overstated, eye-wateringly expensive”: PAC damning on Test & Trace

The government’s flagship test-and-trace system has failed to achieve “its main objective” to cut infection levels and help Britain return to normal despite being handed an “eye-watering” £37bn in taxpayers’ cash, the Commons spending watchdog has warned.

Owl thinks that “Operation Moonshot” – remember that, the much hyped same day mass testing? – was subsumed into NHS test and trace in October 2020.

Andrew Gregory www.theguardian.com 

NHS test and trace was set up in May last year as the UK emerged from the first lockdown. It was led by Dido Harding, a Conservative peer and businesswoman who previously worked for Tesco and TalkTalk. She was appointed by the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, who praised her “brilliant” work on the pandemic.

In a damning report, the public accounts committee concluded that NHS test and trace “has not achieved its main objective to help break chains of Covid-19 transmission and enable people to return towards a more normal way of life” despite receiving about 20% of the NHS’s entire annual budget – £37 bn – over two years.

Instead, the report said, since the end of October 2020 “the country has had two more national lockdowns and case numbers have risen dramatically”. At the time of its launch, Boris Johnson claimed NHS test and trace would be “world-beating”. However, the 26-page report found that its aims had been “overstated or not achieved”.

The timing of the report’s conclusions is hugely embarrassing for the government as it continues to resist introducing measures to stem the rise in Covid cases. NHS test and trace is a key pillar of its “plan A” approach to autumn and winter, which ministers say is sufficient to avoid a crisis.

Even now, uptake of NHS test and trace is still “variable” as some vulnerable people are much less likely to take a test than others, the report says. Urgent improvements are needed in public outreach, with more than 60% of people who experience Covid-19 symptoms reporting that they have not been tested, and certain groups, such as older people, men, and some ethnic minorities, less likely to engage with the service.

The programme is also “still not flexible enough to meet changing demand and risks wasting public money”, the report adds. MPs on the cross-party committee warned that NHS test and trace desperately needs a “proper long-term strategy”.

The report also criticised the handling of the cash awarded to NHS test and trace. It said the programme has still not managed to cut the number of expensive contractors paid an average of £1,100 a day. Some have been paid rates of more than £6,000 a day.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The national test-and-trace programme was allocated eye-watering sums of taxpayers’ money in the midst of a global health and economic crisis. It set out bold ambitions but has failed to achieve them despite the vast sums thrown at it.

“Only 14% of 691m lateral flow tests sent out had results reported, and who knows how many took the necessary action based on the results they got, or how many were never used. The continued reliance on the over-priced consultants who ‘delivered’ this state of affairs will by itself cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the MPs’ report exposed “a great many shortcomings in the NHS test and trace service”.

“Harding previously boasted that the operation was [the] size of Tesco, without conceding that the supermarket chain actually works,” he said. “Greater attention seems to have been paid to headline-grabbing initiatives to build up the system than to ensuring it actually did its job.”

He added: “Failure to cut infections could mean that we suffered more sickness and death, and longer time spent living under restrictions than would otherwise have been the case.”

Michael Hopkins, professor of innovation management at the University of Sussex business school, warned that the report “comes at a crucial time, with Covid cases and scepticism of NHS test and trace both rising”.

A government spokesperson said: “We have rightly drawn on the extensive expertise of a number of public and private sector partners who have been invaluable in helping us tackle the virus.

“We have built a testing network from scratch that can process millions of tests a day – more than any European country – providing a free LFD (lateral flow device) or PCR test to anybody who needs one.

“The new UK Health Security Agency will consolidate the knowledge that now exists across our health system to help us tackle future pandemics and threats.”

Almost £2bn slashed from ‘levelling up’ funding in poor areas despite PM’s pledge

Almost £2bn has been slashed from promised development spending in poorer areas of the UK, despite Boris Johnson’s vow to “level up” the country.

www.independent.co.uk 

The government had pledged to match lost EU funding – to “tackle inequality and deprivation” – which would have required at least £4.5bn over the next three years.

But Rishi Sunak’s Budget reveals just £2.6bn has been allocated and reallocates the fund to improving “functional numeracy skills”, to boost job prospects.

The move will provoke fury in many ‘Red Wall’ areas of England and in Scotland and Wales – which were big recipients of EU structural funds before Brexit cut off the flow.

The Conservative party manifesto at the 2019 general election promised to “at a minimum match” the lost funds in each nation of the UK.

Rebecca Evans, the Welsh Government’s finance minister, protested at “clear gaps in funding where the UK government should be investing in Wales”.

“Arrangements for replacing EU structural funds remain unclear, but what we do know is it falls well short of the £375m we were receiving – these are funds that support skills, businesses and decarbonisation.”

Alexander Rose, a public funding lawyer and secondee at the European Commission, tweeted that the announcement “breaks the promise” that the EU funds would be replaced.

“Furthermore, the new fund is heavily centralised with no guarantees the funding on offer will go to the areas which need it most,” he warned.

The long-promised UK Shared Prosperity Fund was already mired in controversy, after being delayed until next year – already costing poorer areas around £1.5bn.

The government promised to match the pre-Brexit grants, to build local economies by attracting businesses and jobs, and said they would flow from next April.

But the spending review document, for the three years from 2022 until 2025, states it will be “worth over £2.6bn”, over that period.

It says funding will only “rise to £1.5bn a year by 2024-25” and says the pot must no pay for “a new UK-wide programme to equip hundreds of thousands of adults with functional numeracy skills”.

Mr Sunak did not mention the disguised cut in his Budget speech, in which he argued the government was “levelling up communities, restoring the pride people feel in the places they call home”.

“For too long, far too long, the location of your birth has determined too much of your future,” the chancellor said, announcing a separate £1.7bn for better infrastructure in more than 100 areas.

Economic experts have also warned that ministers are ignoring where “need is greatest” in the allocation of the limited funds available.

It came after The Independent revealed that seats held by 7 Cabinet ministers are likely winners from the prosperity fund, despite previously being judged as not needing the grants.

The constituencies of Mr Sunak, the foreign secretary Liz Truss, and Stephen Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, are on a list of “priority places”.

Rishi Sunak “blanked” Simon Jupp in his budget speech

A sharp-eyed correspondent noticed an article posted on the Times “Red Box” column on Tuesday authored by Simon Jupp and Andrew Bowie, MP for Aberdeen.

Both the correspondent and Owl thought it looked suspisciously like a “planted” story.

These two MPs were arguing for the Chancellor to cut air passenger duty on domestic flights as “a bold step towards supporting connectivity across all parts of the Union, as well as boosting our domestic aviation industry which has been at the forefront of the economic impact of coronavirus.”

With COP 26 about to start, arguing for cuts in air passenger duty (when aviation kerosene used by the commercial aviation sector is already exempt from tax) would not seem to be a clever way to support regional aviation. This is an industry that has to be rethought; it can’t just be reset to the “BP” (Before Pandemic) era. 

“Cheap domestic flights might seem a good deal when you buy them, but they are a climate disaster, generating seven times more harmful greenhouse emissions than the equivalent train journey. Making the train cheaper will boost passenger numbers and help reduce emissions from aviation, but any cut to air passenger duty – coupled with a rise in rail fares in January – will send the wrong message about how the government wants people to travel and mean more people choosing to fly.” Paul Tuohy, Campaign for Better Transport’s chief executive.

Nevertheless, the Chancellor obliged by rebalancing the duty, reducing it on domestic flights and increasing it on long flights. 

Obviously Rishi Sunak was expected to name check Aberdeen and Exeter in his speech, illustrating the range of UK domestic flights. Except that Exeter/Devon/Newquay/The South West (and Simon Jupp) must be so beyond his metropolitan radar he forgot to mention it/them.

What he actually said was:

“But today I can announce that flights between airports in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will…

…from April 2023, be subject to a new lower rate of Air Passenger Duty.

This will help cut the cost of living, with 9 million passengers seeing their duty cut by half.

It will bring people together across the UK.

And because they tend to have a greater proportion of domestic passengers…

…it is a boost to regional airports like Aberdeen, Belfast, Inverness and Southampton”

With Exmouth failing to get the Dinan Way grant from the “Leveling up” fund, and Simon having to deny he supported continuing with the tame water quality policy that results, for example, in sewage spewing into the Otter from Honiton, on average, every two or three days, it’s been a mixed week. [Owl repeats “a ludicrous and misleading accusation”.]

Owl believes Simon Jupp has serious questions to answer with regard to his green credentials.

Exmouth misses out on multi-million-pound Dinan Way bid, Simon Jupp MP ‘deeply disappointed’

First Axminster was led up the garden path of disappointment and broken “promises”, now it’s Exmouth’s turn. In Owl’s opinion, Westminster isn’t going to take any  notice of Devon until it returns to its radical roots.

A discussion of the timeline of Simon Jupp’s pre-election regeneration promise can be found in this March post.

Will Goddard exmouth.nub.news 

Simon Jupp MP said that he is ‘deeply disappointed’ that the multi-million pound bid to extend Dinan Way and improve the area around Exmouth railway station has been unsuccessful in the first round of the government’s Levelling Up Fund.

The bid was submitted earlier this year by Devon County Council and East Devon District Council.

It comes despite Exmouth being described as ‘exactly the kind of place that these funds were designed to support’ by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick in Parliament in July, and the Dinan Way extension being Devon County Council’s priority application.

The extension would have seen Dinan Way connected with the A376 to reduce traffic, and has had planning permission since 2017.

East Devon MP Simon Jupp said: “Whilst it is disappointing that our councils’ bid did not succeed in the first round of the Levelling Up Fund, I hope local leaders will continue to work together with me and the government ahead of future opportunities.

“I will be seeking an explanation as to why the bid was unsuccessful which I hope will help further applications, if the council decide to reapply. I have called for a meeting of local council leaders once feedback is received from the government on the councils’ bid.

“I have campaigned hard in Parliament for East Devon, securing on-going support for Exeter Airport and many local businesses. I will continue to work with local councils to back bids for investment.”