We need a proper British Investment Bank, not Osborne's half measure

The Chancellor's small business bank is too modest to make a significant difference to growth.

The latest growth initiative from George Osborne is a state-backed small business bank. The Chancellor said over the weekend that the difficulties small businesses face when trying to get the credit they need to keep going or to expand is one of the biggest problems holding back the UK economy. He has already tried to ease this problem with "Project Merlin" (lending targets for commercial banks), a national loan guarantee scheme and most recently the "funding for lending" initiative. Depending on your option, his latest idea can be seen as building on these previous schemes, or an acceptance that they were not up to the task of getting credit flowing in the economy.

But will it work? That will depend very much on how ambitious the Chancellor chooses to be – and the first signs are not encouraging. The bank is being described as a "one-stop shop": bringing together in one place all the various schemes and initiatives designed by government to help small businesses. No doubt this will be helpful for small businesses, making it easier for them to find a way through the Whitehall maze. But what small businesses really want is an increase in the amount of credit available to them and a reduction in the cost of that credit. It is not immediately apparent that the Chancellor’s new bank will deliver on these aims.

Other countries have national investment banks of varying descriptions, including the KfW in Germany and the Small Business Administration in the United States, and the Chancellor’s idea seems most closely modelled on the latter. But importing wholesale the model of any one overseas bank is unlikely to be the best approach.

What we need in the UK is a fully-fledged British Investment Bank designed to suit the particular circumstances of our economy. This Bank should be set up to tackle two longstanding problems: a tendency to invest less in infrastructure (as a share of GDP) than comparable economies and a shortage of financing, particularly long-term financing, for small and medium-sized businesses.

There are a number of important questions to be addressed before such a Bank could set up – and, like the Green Investment Bank, it would need to secure EU state aid approval - but some of the parameters should be clear. The Bank would be 100 per cent state-owned. Its remit would be to increase lending for infrastructure and to SMEs. And its governance structure would have to ensure there was a clear dividing line between where the role of the government ended and the activities of the bankers began.

More controversial would be the capitalisation of the Bank and its ability to raise additional funds in the capital markets. The Green Investment Bank will have an initial capitalisation of £3bn and will not be able to borrow money at least until the government debt ratio is on a downward trajectory (because its activities count as part of the public sector). The same consideration would, no doubt, prevent the current Chancellor from creating a fully-fledged British Investment Bank.

But there is a qualitative difference between the government having to borrow because its current spending commitments are greater than the sums it is prepared to raise in taxes and a BIB raising funds in asset markets to use to finance infrastructure projects that will generate a stream of income in the future, or to lend to small businesses. A British Investment Bank should not be held back by the vagaries of the UK’s accounting practices. Its activities (and those of the Green Investment Bank) should be excluded from the government’s target fiscal measures and it should be free to raise funds up to a pre-determined leverage ratio

The government would, though, have to provide the new Bank with its initial capital. One option would be tell the Bank of England to do another round of quantitative easing specifically for this purpose. Alternatively, the funds would have to be found by cutting other spending, increased taxation, the sale of government assets or extra borrowing. Given the Chancellor’s unwavering adherence to his fiscal plans, this is likely to be a stumbling block to any hopes of a British Investment Bank in the next few years.

And this is now the biggest problem facing the UK economy. Because the Chancellor will not spend more money boosting aggregate demand in the economy, whether directly through infrastructure spending or a temporary tax cut or indirectly by capitalising a British Investment Bank with a directive to lend to small businesses, he is reduced to indirect schemes like funding for lending or the pension infrastructure plan. These require shifts in behaviour by the banks and pension schemes if they are to work. Unsurprisingly, they are not as effective as more direct approaches.

The Chancellor’s state-backed small business bank fits into the same pattern. It is a half measure, bringing together existing initiatives, rather than the creation of the fully-fledged British Investment Bank that the economy really needs.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR

Chancellor George Osborne plans to create a state-backed small business bank. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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