Seven months of savage cuts leave coalition’s green hue fading

With the final nails hammered into the coffin of the Green Investment Bank, it’s time for a look bac

14 May: "This will be the greenest government ever", pledges David Cameron, three days after the formation of the coalition government. He announces his commitment to the 10:10 campaign, saying that all government departments will cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 10 per cent before the end of 2010.

29 June: The government's Green Investment Bank Commission predicts that £550bn of investment will be needed to meet Britain's renewable energy targets under the Climate Change Act, and recommends the establishment of a Green Investment Bank to meet the challenge by providing finance for clean-power stations, windfarms and smart grids. Experts agree on a fundamental principle: to be capable of kick-starting private-sector investment in potentially risky renewable projects, the GIB must have the ability to issue government-backed "green bonds" to raise money. This kicks off a feud between the bank's backers – led by Chris Huhne – and the Treasury, in which there could only ever be one winner.

16 July: The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announces a £34m cut to its low-carbon technology programme, including a £12m cut to the Carbon Trust, which provides funding to sustainable technology and businesses.

22 July: The Sustainable Development Commission is axed on the day of the first great quango cull. Environmentalists question the value of the move: the £3m per year it cost to run the SDC was a negligible saving, far outweighed by the estimated £70m the SDC saved the taxpayer annually by recommending green efficiency savings. Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), says the decision was an easy one: because she is "personally dedicated to driving the sustainability agenda across government", there is no longer any need for external agencies.

8 August: More good news! All new homes will run on green power by 2016. That, at least, is the improbable but cheery-sounding claim of the housing minister Grant Shapps. Developers that fail to meet the target must pay a levy to fund local renewable energy projects. As Shapps pointed out, being so very green, the coalition government hardly had a choice in the matter. "We are committed to being the greenest government ever," said Shapps, "and an essential part of that is to ensure that all homes in the future will be built without emitting any carbon."

20 September: Two election pledges are struck from the list of things that the coalition might bring itself to do something about. The government will not carry out its proposal to make it an offence to possess illegally felled timber or to bring it into the country; nor will it extend the subsidy for small-scale solar production under the Feed-In Tariff.

20 October (the Spending Review): This is the point where it really starts to look bad for the greenest government ever, as George Osborne's axe falls hard on environmental spending.

  • The review includes proposals to sell off national nature reserves, privatise parts of the Forestry Commission and sell off the Met Office (which has contributed as much as any organisation to the public understanding of climate change).
  • The review cuts Defra's budget by 30 per cent, compared to a government average of 19 per cent, equating to efficiency savings of £700m by end of the four-year review period. Chris Huhne's tiny DECC gets away with an 18 per cent cut.
  • The Environment Agency will shed 5,000-8,000 out of 30,000 jobs, while Natural England's budget is cut by 30 per cent – about 800 full-time jobs. Flood defence spending will be cut by 27 per cent (though citizens of the "big society" are pleased to learn that they will be allowed to pitch in themselves).
  • Confusion about the GIB: Clegg writes to his party members telling them that £2bn has been set aside, but Osborne says £1bn.

21 October: Huhne tells the Guardian that the government may sell off one-third of Urenco, a company that makes enriched uranium for nuclear power – and that the money raised may fund the GIB. £1bn probably isn't enough for a proper bank, but still – better than nothing.

25 October: Caroline Spelman announces that 150,000 hectares of forest may be sold off by the government.

18 November: Chris Huhne signals his frustration with the Treasury, which is continuing to oppose the Green Investment Bank, preferring to repackage some existing green pledges in a sparkly new fund. An anonymous member of the GIB commission says: "Frankly, if it doesn't [have the ability to raise money by issuing government-backed bonds] there's no point in it existing. If we were only ever going to do one thing, the green bond is the thing we need to do . . ."

18 November (continued): Later that day, Cameron puts these fears to rest in a rare speech on the environment. The GIB will be a proper bank, he promises. The Labour MP Joan Walley asks whether it would really be a bank with the ability to issue money, whether a dispute was likely between the Department for Business and the Treasury, and whether he would take a personal interest. Cameron replies: "Yes, yes and yes, to all of those questions."

25 November: Oops! Grant Shapps messed up back in August when he said that all homes must be zero-carbon by 2016. What he meant to say was, "Some homes, but not all, will probably be zero-carbon by 2016."

19 November: Chris Huhne's frustrations in pursuit of his bank spill over into an open attack on the Treasury. He compares its obdurate opposition to the bank with the mistakes that led to the Great Depression.

15 December: The Treasury gets its wish: there will be no GIB. Huhne acknowledges that the "bank" will in fact be merely a green fund, and is also forced humiliatingly into repudiating his principles, saying that sustainability must not take precedence over cutting the deficit. The £550bn Britain needs to meet its emissions targets will have to come from somewhere else.

The greenest government ever – the seven-month summary: Forests for sale, a slashed green-tech budget, no green bank, flood defence budget hammered, no independent sustainability watchdog. But, looking on the bright side, developers will be allowed to build energy-inefficient houses for a few more years at least, and you can still import illegally logged timber if you like.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?