Not all infrastructure is created equal

The real value of the projects we should be starting now will be measured over decades.

After three years of vigorous disagreement the political and economic commentariat seem to have found common ground. Infrastructure. Left and right now agree that it’s vital for the UK’s economic renewal, requires much greater infrastructure investment, and the Chancellor looks set to move it closer to the centre stage in the Budget.

Less has been said on what kind of infrastructure we need, and what its impact will be on the economy. The Treasury claim to like anything that is "shovel ready". This presents an image of kindly but determined, fluorescent jacketed men, forming a Roman column, as they wait for the signal to strike with their pick axes. In reality Whitehall struggles to find these projects because the most valuable infrastructure such as broadband upgrades or new energy schemes take years to prepare for investment,  don’t require direct taxpayer money, and are largely driven by the confidence of the  private sector.

The only infrastructure where government still has a direct lever to pull are those projects which receive direct taxpayer investment, such as road and rail schemes, which is why the Treasury is desperately nudging the transport department for schemes they can fund, even as the wallet is more firmly shut to other departments. Road proposals that the DfT have long since relegated to the recycling bin as bad investments have been fished out by Treasury ministers desperate to be seen to do something. According to some in DfT, these zombie roads could risk undermining the strategic role of the £37.5bn already announced to upgrade our rail network. We should remember that not all infrastructure compliments each other. Also, while road schemes are good at generating a short burst of employment as they are built, there is little longer last impact and they have a longer downside by making the economy more dependent on imported and volatile oil prices.

In contrast the majority of infrastructure projects set to be built without government money will increase the resilience of the UK economy to fuel price increases, and should increase the UK’s productivity. Work we have done at Green Alliance on the Treasury’s infrastructure pipeline shows that over two thirds of projects planned up to 2020 are low carbon, and 94 per cent of them require no direct government investment.  A "dash for gas" won’t be much help – it makes up 3 per cent of possible investment before the next election. Offshore wind makes up two thirds. This is the difference between good infrastructure that strengthens the UK economy, and bad which does not rebalance our economy and is too small to have a macro-economic impact.

The problem for all infrastructure advocates, amongst which I’m one, is that none of these major projects will have a significant impact by the time of the next election. Their real value must be measured over decades.

The best things to encourage in the short-term are measures that encourage individuals and businesses to invest and benefit in smaller chunks, like energy efficiency. The last government had some success in 2008 with its boiler scrappage scheme, which stimulated millions of pounds of home owner investment at very low public cost, but there are still several million more of the least efficient G rated boilers in UK homes, and a similar number without sufficient insulation. Measures to make better buildings and upgrade appliances may not fit the conventional description of infrastructure but they can have a much bigger economic benefit than pouring tarmac.

This is where Heseltine’s review had some interesting thoughts, at least on how infrastructure is decided. His focus on local powers and responsibilities seem likely to be agreed by the Chancellor. Granting currently quite weak Local Enterprise Partnerships the “authority or resource” they need could prove interesting for ensuring we deliver a more effective approach to deciding our infrastructure.

Agreeing to infrastructure investment is the beginning, not the end, of the discussion. Because not all infrastructure is created equal, you can expect the economic consensus about its value to end as soon as the picks hit the ground. But if we are serious about its role in economic renewal we should be having that debate now. And we should be choosing the low carbon energy and communications infrastructure that makes our economy ready for today’s challenges, not those of the last century.

A construction worker builds a high-speed rail bridge in Germany. Photograph: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.