Last budget of Parliament is heralded for pensions, infrastructure and growth

25 Mar 2015 12:00 am

Almost a week has passed since George Osborne delivered the last budget before the general election and three areas have dominated the media's coverage of The Chancellor's statement: pensions, infrastructure and growth.

As Britain's economic fortunes have shifted in the 12 months since the 2014 Budget so, it seems, have the UK's financial priorities.  This is true at least if an analysis of the number of articles published since Mr Osborne stood up in the House of Commons on Thursday is an accurate reflection of public sentiment.

A year ago, with Britain's recovery still in its early stages, economic growth was the most written about subject emerging from the budget. This year, with the recovery seemingly cemented and growth forecast to be 2.5 per cent this year, it has dropped to the third most written about subject for the media in the aftermath of the budget, leapfrogged by analysis of the Chancellor's pension changes as well as infrastructure and housing. Of the several thousand articles published by the media on the budget, there have been 729 articles on pension changes; 577 on economic forecasts and growth; and 519 on infrastructure, housing, transport and the regions.

Budget 2015

The media's shift in priorities reflects both fiscal and social changes: traditionally in times of economic health, interest has centred on fuel duty and taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. But this year, the dramatic fall in the price of oil has meant that the Chancellor's widely expected scrapping of the annual fuel duty increase received the attention of a scant 203 media articles.  Likewise, in previous years a cut of 1p in the price of a pint of beer and a two per cent cut on spirits would have received close attention. But this policy was referenced in just 194 articles - fewer even than those written about fuel duty.

The media's coverage on pensions was driven by Osborne's announcement that up to five million pensioners will be able to sell their annuities and take the money as a lump sum, new drawdown or flexible annuity. All of the major media outlets focused on what will effectively become a second-hand annuity market - hardly surprising given the demographic of much of the UK media's readership and that one in six of the UK's population is over the age of 65.

Perhaps the most surprising result of the analysis of articles published on the budget is that the issue of mental health formed the basis for 399 of them, putting it in fifth place (ahead of savings, fuel, alcohol, tobacco and corporate taxation).

The coverage is a fillip for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who managed to get their Coalition partners to include a £1.25 billion boost to the mental health care budget in England which will be aimed primarily at young people and an increase in emphasis on so-called 'talking therapy' over anti-depressants. This policy, which was flagged up well in advance of the budget by Treasury Secretary, Danny Alexander, follows extensive media coverage of claims that the Coalition has cut mental health service budgets by eight per cent since 2010.  It demonstrates again that, if as a politician you wish to ensure that a subject is substantially covered by the media, it is important to flag it up in advance of and separately to the budget as a whole.

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