Saving sustainably

We already encourage saving - why not encourage sustainable saving instead?

The post-Budget row over tax relief for charitable giving has obscured the fact that there are many tax reliefs given for profitable activities without any consideration for the public benefit of the activities being effectively subsidised. Around £40bn a year of relief against income or capital gains tax goes to support pension saving, ISAs and protect individual gains from the sale of residential property. In times of austerity shouldn’t we be looking more closely at how this money is used? Could the Government use the policy leverage created by such subsidies to encourage more responsible behaviour in the financial sector that benefits the taxpayer as well as the individual investor?

Britain’s economy before the credit crunch was based on high borrowing to fuel increasing consumption which drove economic growth. As individuals we didn’t save enough for our own financial security, and as a country, we haven’t invested enough in our economic future. To face the long term challenges to our economic prosperity like an ageing population or climate change, we will need a more resilient economy that has far stronger foundations of savings and investment.

So what happens to the money that we combine with the tax subsidy in order to save for the future?

Well, we know that pension funds and institutional investors place much of this in the stock market, but the evidence shows that more and more of this capital is used for high frequency trading rather than long term investing. Andy Haldane of the Bank of England is one high profile regulator who is very concerned with this development. Cash placed in ISAs earns a very low rate of interest and, in as much that these funds bolster bank balance sheets and help fund lending to the economy, we also know that the majority of such lending actually funds property loans and financial speculation. Less than 20 per cent of UK bank lending goes to the productive economy of growing businesses. Finally we know that fees and charges in the investment and banking sectors are notoriously opaque, and competition is far from perfect.

So there is an understandable lack of trust in the finance sector, yet the government has to find a way to convince the public not just to save more, but channel those savings into productive investment. One way to do this is for the government to be more explicit about encouraging savings and investments that apply responsibility criteria and enhance social and environmental well being, as well as financial returns. Moreover, it should be using the existing subsidies to enforce this principle. In an era where all subsidy has to be made to work harder for the public interest, there should be a principle that, in return for tax relief, savers and investors should be able to demonstrate a contribution to the public good. This will not be easy to do, but there is a growing set of voluntary standards and codes of practice which investment organisations can apply to demonstrate they are taking a responsible approach, looking a long term interests, not just short term profits.

In my recent report for Green Alliance, Saving for a sustainable future, I make the case for these principles to be used in public policy and set out a few ways in which it could be applied:

  • Pension tax relief could be made conditional on responsible standards being applied.

  • Banks could only be able to offer tax-free Cash ISA accounts if they could demonstrate responsible and transparent lending practices.

  • Capital gains tax relief for the sale of a residential property could be made conditional on certain energy efficiency improvements being made to the building.

There is political consensus on the need to rebalance our economy and reshape British capitalism in way that better incorporates the values of society. Applying these ideas to existing taxpayer subsidies is a good start.

Green - well, yellow - Britain. Photograph: Getty Images

Chris is an independent environmental policy consultant working on sustainable finance, climate change, energy policy and the green economy. He is a fellow of the Finance Innovation Lab, and an associate of Green Alliance, where he has written on the Green Investment Bank, environmental tax reform and sustainable savings policy.

He was previously head of Climate Change at the Environment Agency and senior research fellow for sustainability at IPPR. Follow @chrisjhewett on twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.