4G auction raises £1bn less than expected

£3.5bn has been pre-spent; just £2.35bn will be arriving in the coffers.

The auction for the 4G mobile communications spectrum has raised just £2.34bn, over £1bn short of expectations. Since the money has been effectively pre-spent by the chancellor in the most recent budget, the discrepancy will be extremely problematic for the Government's budget plans.

The £2.34bn will buy five companies — EE, 3, O2, Vodafone and a new operator "Niche Spectrum Ventures Ltd" (owned by BT)  — access to the 4G spectrum. This will allow those operators to run mobile broadband throughout much of the UK, and is partly enabled by the switch-off of analogue TV, which freed up part of the 4G spectrum for alternative use.

While the Chancellor was apparently greedy in assuming that Britain could earn £3.5bn from the sale of the spectrum, the last auction like this, held under Gordon Brown's treasury, raised £22bn. But the 3G sale was markedly different from the 4G one. Held in the midst of the dot-com boom, the hope for revenue from the new technology was inflated beyond the realms of possibility, and a concerted PR campaign on the part of the government running for three years beforehand ensured that hype reached fever pitch.

Take, for example, Webvan. The company was founded with the promise of same-day delivery in the San Francisco area on a number of basic products — it was, basically, Ocado. But unlike Ocado, it had a market cap post-IPO of $8bn. Ocado, undoubtedly better than Webvan in every aspect, but ten years later, went for a quarter of that. In other words: the 2010s are not the 2000s when it comes to making big money from technology.

The 3G auction was also successful, however, in managing expectations. The general assumption was that "licences would sell for a total of about £2-4 billion", according to Ken Binmore and Paul Klemperer, authors of the definitive look at the auction. If this Chancellor has made one mistake, it was overinflating expectations — and if he's made two, it was writing those overinflated expectations into the nation's budget. His hubris will sting this morning.

4G iPads. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.