The extension of the Northern Line - how will the Monopoly board cope?

South London gets its tube stations.

 

North Londoners often joke that if south London is so great, why aren't there more Tube stations there? A proposed new extension of the Northern Line aims to redress the balance somewhat, with a new branch extending from Kennington to new stations at Nine Elms and Battersea.

As well as literally branching out into new territory, the £1bn project is also drawing attention for the unique financial scheme that will pay for it if it goes ahead. In a first for an infrastructure project in England, an innovative funding package has been agreed under which the Greater London Authority will borrow the cost of development from the Public Works Loan Board. The government will guarantee the repayment to minimise borrowing costs.

The loan will be repaid by revenue raised from local regeneration projects that will benefit from the new transport links. The two sources will be contributions by local developers collected by the Lambeth and Wandsworth local authorities; and the growth in business rates revue from a new Enterprise Zone planned for Nine Elms, which will stay in operation for at least 25 years.

Enterprise Zones usually offer incoming businesses a discount on their rates bills to stimulate growth and investment. Under this proposal, it would be used purely as a mechanism to fund the Northern Line extension.

Final details of the financing package now need to be agreed by Wandsworth Council, Lambeth Council and Transport for London (TfL), working with the Mayor of London's Office, for inclusion in an application that TfL plans to submit under the Transport and Works Act by the end of April 2013.

Leader of Wandsworth Council, Ravi Govindia, said: "This project could represent a major breakthrough in the way we pay for vital infrastructure projects in this country. We plan to use an enterprise zone as a funding tool for a major transport upgrade, which in turn, will create new growth, new jobs and even greater tax receipts in the future.

"Over the long term the scheme would pay for itself while delivering a major economic and inward investment stimulus for London. It would give Battersea its first underground station and help bring an underused part of the Thames riverside back to life.

Although businesses attracted to the area will not benefit from the usual rates discount, the local economy stands to receive a boost from the creation of as many as 25,000 new jobs and the building of 16,000 new homes across the Nine Elms on the South Bank regeneration area.

The proposals have received a healthy thumbs-up from local residents, with around three quarters of people responding to a third public consultation on the new Tube link with positive or neutral comments.

Michèle Dix, managing director of Planning for TfL, said: "This third public consultation very much confirms that there is very strong support for this transport link. These two new Tube stations at Battersea and Nine Elms will create access to the London Underground for thousands of people, as well as cutting journey times from this part of London to the West End and the City to around 15 minutes."

TfL also says it would reduce pressure on Vauxhall station, offer relief to the existing Northern Line south of Kennington and provide wider access to leisure and employment opportunities for local people.

Having lobbied in his own inimitable style for the Northern Line extension, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson has welcomed the progress made to date on the funding scheme.

"I am delighted that after months of intensive discussions and hard work we have got the go ahead from government on financing an extension to the Northern Line, which is hugely significant as Nine Elms is one of the areas with the greatest prospect for new development in the whole of the capital," he said.

"It will be an incredible confidence boost for developers preparing to invest there and it will also be a considerable boost for local people who will benefit from the new Tube link."

As officials from the Mayor's Office and TfL finalise arrangements for financing of the extension with the government, a consultation is also underway for the extension itself, which must be carried out before the Transport and Works Act Order is submitted.

If planning approval is obtained from the government and a funding package is in place, construction on the Northern Line extension could begin in 2015, with the two new stations opening as early as 2020.

The go-ahead on a financing plan is the latest in a series of milestones the wider regeneration programme has achieved in the last year. Significantly, a new buyer has been confirmed for the iconic Battersea Power Station site where 3,400 new homes, a new office quarter, a retail centre, new hotels and an entertainment district will be built.

Once that is finalised, it only remains for the designers of the Tube map and the Monopoly board to squeeze in the new look Northern Line.

This article first appeared here

Tube goes south. Photograph: Getty Images

Berenice Baker is Defence Editor at Strategic Defence Intelligence.

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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?