Our problem is no longer unwillingness to spend on infrastructure, it's inability

Outsourcing government policy since 2010

As my colleague George Eaton wrote this morning, the political top-line from the government's announcement of a £50bn infrastructure program is that it signals a gruff acceptance of Keynesian economics:

The delusion that the coalition's spending cuts would increase consumer confidence and produce a self-sustaining private-sector-led recovery has been abandoned after Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction" turned out to be, well, contractionary.

But getting wonkish about it, there is something interesting buried in all this about how the government has chosen to execute this volte-face. Rather than simply borrow the money – at interest rates so low that it would basically be paid to do so – it has announced that it will guarantee the private loans of any company which fulfils certain requirements.

Doubtless part of the reason is political. This way, the government can confidently state that they aren't adding anything to the deficit, even though this way of borrowing is functionally identical to doing it the standard, on-the-books way. But part of it will be because infrastructure investment is really hard.

According to the FT:

To qualify for the new guarantees, projects must be ready to start in the 12 months from the offer being made and Treasury officials say they will be monitored to ensure they would not have gone ahead in any case.

The thing is, there just aren't that many shovel-ready projects simply lying around the place, and certainly not big flashy ones. Although the government is proclaiming that the Thames tunnel, the Mersey Gateway toll bridge and the A14 road widening in Cambridge could all be helped with the money, it's usually more mundane things which are the easiest use of infrastructure spending. Forget high-speed rail and airport islands, and focus on sewers and road resurfacing.

Unfortunately, its relatively tricky to spend £50bn on sewers in a year. Thames Water is replacing all the Victorian Water mains in London, but its taking 5 years and costing £5bn. To do it any faster would risk chaos in the streets. And noteably, they had already started that program without the governments money. That's going to be true of a lot of the low-level infrastructure investments that would otherwise be ripe for targeted spending.

So the government needs ideas. And what better way to get them than to offload the generating of them to the private sector? It's no longer just a government outsourcing based on ideology. It's now a government outsourcing because it has literally no idea how to enact policy it desperately wants to.

Osborne knows what it means to be Keynesian, but doesn't know how to do it. If you think you do, why not bid for his money?

The Thames tunnel, one of the proposed uses of the infrastructure money. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Budget 2017: What announcements will Philip Hammond make?

What will the first budget after Brexit hold for the economy?

This spring’s Budget - set to be announced on Wednesday 8 March 2017 - will be forced to confront the implications of last June's Brexit vote, along with dealing with issues of reliance on consumer spending, business rates and government borrowing. The government also (quietly) announced on Monday night that it will be asking ministerial departments to outline cuts up to 6 per cent, a potential nod for what’s to come next week.

All these things, along with the fact the Chancellor Philip Hammond is scrapping the spring Budget, meaning this announcement should be an interesting one.

The big story at the moment focuses on borrowing. The Resolution Foundation has predicted that healthier-than-expected tax revenues and the lack of a Brexit effect so far will lower Budget borrowing forecasts by £29bn between 2015-16 and 2020-21. 

The FT reports a possible £3bn reduction in borrowing, to £67bn. They also pin this optimistic prediction to higher-than-average self-assessment tax receipts, after changes in the taxation of dividends.

The Chancellor will potentially stick to the three key changes he made from George Osborne’s former financial commitments, according to The Sun. These consist of not predicting a surplus in 2019/20, slightly relieving the cap on welfare spending and no longer committing to reducing debt. The paper also predicts he’ll announce a change to the controversial business rates that were recently released, that could leave “shopkeepers and publicans clobbered with tax hikes of up to 400 per cent".

What do we know for sure?

The government has announced a few key changes in in advance of the Budget.

  1. The Spring Budget 2017 will be the final Budget held during springtime
  2. Finance Bill will follow the Budget, as it does now
  3. From 2018 "Legislation day" will move to the summer
  4. An Autumn Budget means tax changes will be announced well in advance of the start of the tax year
  5. 2018 will see the first Spring Statement