Pooling pension funds makes perfect sense

Far from the hysteria about "Granny tax II", London's pension investment plan can't come soon enough

Pension funds and infrastructure investment have enjoyed a recent revival in policy discourse. Last month Prime Minister David Cameron used a major speech on the economy to discuss infrastructure, ‘the magic ingredient in so much of modern life.’ In Budget 2012 Chancellor George Osborne announced a new Pension Infrastructure Platform. Yesterday they were the talk of the town in London.

The proposal to pool the pension funds of London boroughs and to invest these assets through a new infrastructure vehicle is good news both for the public purse and good news for the essential upgrades – to transport, utilities and communications – that the capital requires. However, a new debt vehicle will only go so far. To drive economic growth London councils should consider more fundamental reforms to the pooling of both finance and risk.

Pension funds have long time horizons. This means that they are well placed to invest in the infrastructure that is crucial to economic growth but will not realise immediate returns, such as new transport connections. In fact, there is a near perfect match between pension funds' appetite for long term assets and the need for long term financing of infrastructure.

Although underdeveloped in the UK the investment model has been pursued abroad; Canadian public pension funds are amongst the most active backers of infrastructure in the world. London councils are reportedly modelling their new approach on the Ontario Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (OMERS).

The scale of the OMERS model encourages collaborative working. This has provided the stability required for Ontario investment managers to build up management expertise. In the UK, councils that collaborate on investment decisions – through arrangements like those in place in Greater Manchester or under discussion in the Leeds city region – can raise far more money than those that work alone. In the absence of a clear national strategy for growth such local prioritisation and investment certainty is crucial.

OMERS holds CAD $55 bn in assets which makes it slightly smaller than the proposed £30 bn London fund. As of December 2010 OMERS had committed 15.5 per cent of its total portfolio to infrastructure. Its target allocation of 21.5 per cent dwarfs the investment planned by London council’s: 7.5 per cent of pension fund assets or £2.25 bn.

OMERS invests through its Borealis infrastructure vehicle. Borealis was established in 1999 and has built up sufficient expertise to run a varied infrastructure portfolio. London councils should consider establishing a similar independent vehicle so that decisions are based on the best business case for investment and the fiduciary duty of trustees, rather than political short-termism.

The relatively small scale of the Canadian infrastructure market means that OMERS has invested in international markets in order to meet its portfolio target. London boroughs may prefer to invest solely in projects in and around the capital, such as Crossrail or the proposed extension of the Northern Line to Battersea. However, prioritising local investments will undermine portfolio diversity. The boroughs will have to take a more holistic view of infrastructure for local economic growth.

London council’s may want to consider channelling local investments through a revolving investment fund (RIF). This would provide a vehicle through which councils could co-operate on the use of existing capital spending allocations and prudential borrowing. Greater Manchester has recently established a £1.2 billion RIF and agreed a city deal with the government that gives councils the opportunity to "earn back" up to £30m a year of tax for the growth it creates through infrastructure investments. This could include both corporate and income tax and demonstrates that Government is willing to consider potential funding opportunities that go way beyond the current plans for local business rate retention.

London boroughs could look to negotiate a similar deal, assessing infrastructure investment not only on stand-alone returns but on how they will underpin the development of London’s businesses.  If they succeed in this they could well have found a "magic ingredient" for economic growth. They may even have a few ideas to offer the Canadians.

London boroughs are planning to pool their pension liabilities. Credit: Getty

Joe is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.