Osborne almost choked halfway through his speech. Let’s hope the rest of us don't do the same.

Budget 2013

As last year’s Budget proved only too well, the devil is always in the detail. And while according to opposition leader Ed Miliband this was a Budget from a downgraded Chancellor, there was substantially more in George Osborne’s fourth outing than many observers expected, with the possible exception of the Evening Standard, which broke an embargo on most of the proposals

There were changes to the remit of the Governor of the Bank of England, a new employment allowance to encourage entrepreneurs and small businesses to employ more people, new initiatives to encourage more mortgage lending and stimulate the housing market and even an unexpected one penny drop in the price of beer.

The Budget Book will be less digested (and less digestible) than his speech (Osborne’s knack of almost filibustering through his Budgets means it is quite hard to pick out the important announcements), and it might be there that details will be found on the costing of announcements such as reducing corporation tax for large companies down to a flat rate of 20 per cent for all companies regardless of size and the abolishing of stamp duty for shares traded on smaller markets, such as AIM. These were both welcome as part of a wider plan to make the UK the most attractive place to start and run a business.

But the government’s ease with the idea that it’s OK for multinationals to seek to reduce their tax bill by picking the best place to locate is slightly at odds with an apparent disgust at other forms of sensible tax planning. Osborne claimed that they will be naming and shaming those who advise companies and/or individuals how to avoid tax (which means accountants as much as tax lawyers and others) and suggested that the already heavily-trailed General Anti-Abuse Rule (GAAR) would raise £3bn, with £1bn coming from offshore avoidance.

This matches the amount by which Osborne claimed to be boosting infrastructure spending, with the usual focus on broadband internet and odd projects such as Battersea Power Station singled out for the nod.

The truth is that Osborne had as little room for growth as expected with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) again downgrading growth forecasts for several years to come. Osborne made much of the international picture and placed much of the blame for this year’s forecast rate of 0.6 per cent growth on the eurozone. In truth if the uncertainty in Cyprus continues or spreads, even that anaemic rate will look optimistic.

All government departments will be forced to make further cuts to their budgets, in total a further £1.5bn on top of the £10bn announced in December. These will be achieved through greater efficiency and better financial controls, so at least it seems Osborne does see a positive role for accountants after all.

Perhaps more disappointing was that the detail of how the government intends to get money out to SMEs remained unclear. There was a brief mention of the Business Bank early on but no more detail in the speech.

Osborne almost choked halfway through delivering the Budget speech. Let’s hope there is nothing in the detail that makes the rest of the country do the same.

This article first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.