Presenting the government’s budget this afternoon Chancellor George Osborne declared that "Britain is walking tall again". So does that mean he’s pulling on his walking boots, stepping out on foot and seeing how it contributes to Britain’s growing outdoors economy?
Sadly not. In fact, amongst announcements on raising the personal tax allowance, increasing subsidies to North Sea oil producers and building a tidal energy lagoon in Swansea Bay there was precious little to promote walking (with the honourable exception, perhaps of another penny off a pint).
On the positive side however, after years of austerity the economic forecast appears to be brightening. Last year Britain's economy grew faster than any other major advanced economy in the world, growth has been revised up for the year ahead and by 2018/19 the Chancellor expects Britain to be running a surplus. That should mean more money in our pockets, which we hope people we use to help us build a Walking Britain.
The end then is hopefully in sight for the long, hard squeeze on public spending so that in 2019-20, it will grow in line with the growth of the economy. But before we entertain notions of renewed government financial support to help us promote active, healthy lifestyles, protect the places where people walk and improve access to the outdoors we mustn’t overlook two facts. One, most central government dried up when austerity started to bite, and two, there are still cuts – big cuts – to come.
The Chancellor outlined £30 billion of savings – including £13 billion from government departments – he would like to make in the next parliament, and up and down the country we are witnessing the impact as local authorities make severe reductions to the budgets which keep paths open. The Local Government Association points out that between Mr Osborne’s first Budget in 2010 and the end of the next financial year, the money government gives to councils to provide local services will have fallen by 40%.
As local and national politicians face tough decisions about how to provide key services on reduced budgets we are highlighting how supporting walking makes sound economic sense; it boosts rural economies (in the English countryside walkers spend over £6 billion a year, supporting up to 245,000 full time jobs), reduces healthcare costs (physical inactivity costs the UK £8 billion a year) and connects people to nature (the social benefits of which are valued at £484 million/year).
Building stronger rural economies, making people healthier and happier, and reducing costs? Well that really is something about which any Chancellor should ‘walk tall’.