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This Shoddy, Shabby Budget

18/03/2016 17:13 GMT | Updated 19/03/2017 09:12 GMT

Did I miss something? Or is George Osborne already prime minister?

Because if he isn't, why did he announce on Wednesday that he intends to turn all schools in England into academies by 2020? Is 'setting schools free from local education bureaucracy' (otherwise known as denying them local authority support and removing any last vestige of local accountability) now part of a chancellor's job description?

He says education reform is essential to improving the UK's productivity record. In which case perhaps he should be looking at ways to recruit - and retain - more good teachers, and ensure decent funding for all the nation's schools. There's no magic about academies: some are good, some are bad, just like any other schools. Taking them away from local authorities and transferring ultimate responsibility for them to central government, while entrusting the running of them to charitable trusts and commercial sponsors, will not automatically deliver better-educated children.

Perhaps Mr Osborne should have paid more attention to the man who used to run one of the government's pin-up academies, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, east London. Sir Michael Wilshaw is now the chief inspector of schools in England and just last week, he said this about some of the Trusts which are now running academies:

'There has been much criticism in the past of local authorities failing to take swift action with struggling schools. Given the impetus of the academies programme to bring about rapid improvement, it is of great concern that we are not seeing this in... [some] multi-academy trusts and that, in some cases, we have even seen decline.'

It was hardly a vote of confidence in an idea that has so far failed to prove that it can deliver on its promises. In the words of Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week magazine: 'Perhaps the saddest thing about Osborne's policy is that it doesn't do anything to help the very real concerns in schools about the difficulty of hiring teachers and seriously squeezed budgets. Spectacle over substance: politicians fall for it every time.'

You've heard of pre-election budgets; this was a pre-referendum budget. It was, therefore, also a damp squib budget, designed mainly to disguise the fact that Osborne's economic strategy isn't working. So why couldn't he wait till after the referendum is out of the way and then do what needs to be done for the sake of the country, rather than for the sake of his political ambitions? According to Martin Wolf of the Financial Times: 'Nothing that the chancellor of the exchequer announced in the Budget is of great relevance to the economic or fiscal health of the country. Indeed, on balance, the UK would have been just as well off without it.'

So why freeze fuel duty while oil prices are at rock bottom and I can now buy petrol at 99p a litre? Why is that more important than trying to ensure adequate financial support for people with disabilities? It's so patently unjust that even some Tory MPs are finding it hard to stomach.

Why fiddle with tax rates so that, once again, the better off become even better off and the worst off get nothing? According to Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies: 'The biggest gainers were those towards the top of the income distribution, with most towards the bottom broadly unaffected.' Politics is about priorities, and Mr Osborne's are clear to see.

I have listened to far too many budget speeches over the years, and one of the things I have learned to watch out for is what isn't included as well as what is. So why, in a budget that the chancellor boasted was 'for the next generation', was there not a single, solitary mention of the need for new incentives to encourage investment in green technologies? (I did a word search for the word 'green' in his speech: it appeared just once, in the sentence 'We are giving the green light to High Speed 3 between Manchester and Leeds.')

According to Richard Black of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit: 'The £730million announced for renewable energy should mean we'll continue building offshore wind farms at about the current rate, but it's equally notable that there's nothing new for onshore wind, biomass and solar - or, indeed, for measures to cut energy waste, which we know is the energy investment that Britons support most.' (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ECIU's advisory board.)

The chancellor had probably already written his speech by the time the latest global climate data were released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing that last month was the hottest February in 137 years of record keeping, and the 10th consecutive month to set a new record. Still, bequeathing a habitable planet to our grandchildren obviously pales into insignifance besides the importance of that referendum vote in June.

It was a shoddy budget from a shabby chancellor. And judging by his past performance, he'll have got all his numbers wrong as well. Remember J.K. Galbraith: 'The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.'