From striver alert to future cuts: five things to expect from the Autumn Statement

A few insights from Gavin Kelly to help you navigate Osborne's fiscal arithmetic.

In the Autumn Statement there will be a blizzard of facts, figures, assertions and counter-assertions. There have been a few helpful pointers on what lto ook out for (try this and this), and I’ve already given my tuppence worth on what may happen to the faltering fiscal rules. But here are a few further insights to bear in mind.

First, be on striver alert. Expect plenty of warm words about "do-ers and grafters" who get up and work hard on modest means. In a different part of the Chancellor’s speech there will be tough messages and measures for those working age families who receive tax credits and benefits. Not for the first or last time the impression will be given that these are two distinct groups inhabiting different moral and economic worlds. They aren’t. Three quarters of tax credits go to working households. If reports about capping tax credit increases at 1 per cent are correct then so-called strivers are about to be squeezed too. 

Second, there will be new news on wages – and the longevity of the squeeze. Buried in the OBR report there will new estimates for what is expected to happen to wages and inflation until 2018. In terms of the economics, and politics, of living standards from now until the election this is key data. Given that the OBR’s forecast for growth in 2013 is very likely to be marked down (from rosy 2 per cent figure it set in March) the assumption for earnings may well also fall. Also, for those who want to get inside the numbers, be warned that the figures the OBR uses tend to be a bit optimistic as they are based on the mean rather than typical (ie median) wage.

Third, watch out for childcare. Given the size of the cuts that are coming down the path you might not expect any new areas of spending. But if there is to be any (outside of new capital investment – or more accurately a slowing down of the rate of infrastructure cuts) then childcare may be a beneficiary. Measures to help with childcare costs would support employment, speak to concerns over the cost of living, and be a nod to the Coalition’s woes with some women voters. In terms of what might actually get announced there is likely to have been a lively internal debate. On the one hand, there are those who favour introducing tax-relief – a slightly saloon bar approach - which will inevitably favour the better off (and which has been skewered by my colleague James Plunkett). Against this are those who would like to build on the 15 hours of free guaranteed pre-school childcare. This latter approach would be a step in the right direction and do something to reduce the shocking disincentives to work that many second earners face in low and middle income families. That said, the government may want to hold any such announcement back to the New Year when its Childcare Commission reports.

Fourth, there is the widely anticipated raid on pension tax relief for the affluent. The briefings are that around £1-1.5bn might be raised by lowering the annual limit on pension contributions from £50k to £30k. If so, be ready for a bit of a storm from the well-organised pensions lobby. But bear in mind that tax-relief is highly regressive and very expensive. It is indeed remarkable that the support for higher rate tax payers has been so protected given some of the cuts being made – some of the claims about these measure hammering "middle-earners" are very overdone.

Even so, there are better ways of cutting tax-relief for the affluent than restricting the annual limit: the lifetime allowance for tax privileged pension contributions should be cut instead. Bringing it down from £1.5m to £1m would raise up to £1.5bn (to put this perspective note that the typical size of annuity purchased is £25k). It’s also the case that those who say that this salami slicing of pension tax relief is destabilising for savers have a point: the government should work out once and for all how much it wants to raise from pension tax relief in this Parliament and then draw a line. And when it does this, it should bear in mind that it still needs to find the billions to pay for the final increase in the personal tax allowance to £10k before 2015.

Finally, care needs to be taken in adding up the scale of the future cuts. The briefing by the IFS on Thursday lunchtime will provide the definitive view on this. But if a figure is revealed for new cuts that need to be made in 2017/18 (because the structural deficit gets pushed back by another year) then bear in mind that this will be on top of a pile of other cuts – roughly £23bn - that have already been pencilled in for 2015/16 and 2016/2017 but are yet to be allocated. Osborne is accumulating an ever larger mountain of fiscal misery to be dished out between departments and welfare spending. For a guide to this unpleasant fiscal arithmetic you won’t do better than reading this from the IPPR and this from the SMF.

But also bear in mind, that if the OBR decided at some future date to change its assumptions about the amount of spare capacity in the economy, and therefore the size of the structural deficit, then all of these numbers would be greatly affected. In which case there would be probably be a need for another Autumn Statement.

 

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.