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

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation