Planning for long-term growth tells us what we should do in the short-term

Demand-friendly cuts and tax rises will boost UK PLC now.

Two things are striking about yesterday’s report of the LSE Growth Commission. The first is the very strong implication of its conclusions that the path to future prosperity is decidedly one involving, indeed demanding, government involvement in the economy rather than the state stepping back. The second is what its prescription for long-term economic growth says about how we should get the UK out of its current economic malaise.

The first isn’t a political statement. Indeed, the Commission points to evidence that the pick-up in Britain’s relative productivity growth began in the 1980s, and is largely attributable to the policies of Conservative (but also Labour) governments. Most of the growth-enhancing reforms are clear victories for economic liberals: increased labour market flexibility, better active labour market policies, and openness to foreign capital and labour.

But what the report also makes clear is that the benefits of simply removing such barriers to growth has run its course. The authors couldn’t be clearer that “demands for ever greater deregulation and reductions in government spending as a panacea for the UK’s growth problems are misguided.” Rather it is now the state that must act and invest wisely if the UK is to keep pace with productivity growth in other leading countries. Investment in education at every stage from pre-school to vocational training is advocated. The authors argue for new and better government institutions – and indeed public investment – to stimulate investment in transport and energy infrastructure. And a new role is claimed for the state role in subsidising R&D through a business bank, taking “a wider view of the social returns to innovative projects”.

All in all this amounts to a significant increase in state involvement in the economy. It’s also hard to see how this agenda is compatible with the current government’s plan to load future fiscal consolidation entirely onto departmental spending between now and 2018. As SMF research has recently shown, protecting education spending – let alone increasing it – alongside health at the next spending review will impose politically unacceptable cuts on other public services. There will certainly be no scope for increasing public investment in infrastructure, or scaling-up Vince Cable’s business bank.

In other words, the supply siders had some useful insights in the 1980s, on which the recent productivity spurt was largely based. But the prescriptions of advocates for a small state and blanket deregulation are now the road to economic lassitude.

So what about the short term? While the Commission focuses on long-term growth rather than remedies for the current stagnation, there is a strong link between the two. The reforms advocated will take many years, and perhaps decades, to bear fruit. All the more important to start immediately. But with the deficit reduction programme now running to 2018, and an aging population likely to put further pressure on the budget thereafter, action can’t wait until the (hopefully) sunlit uplands of the next decade.

Rather than seeing the short- and long-term as distinct challenges, we must find a way to tackle the current economic problems in a way that lays the foundations for future growth. A huge and immediate investment strategy for our creaking transport, energy and housing infrastructure is the way to square the circle. And the chancellor can do it without deviating from his current deficit reduction plan.

How can this be achieved? With £31bn of further fiscal consolidation in the pipeline by 2018, the chancellor should bring forward cuts to elements of public spending which do little to support the economy, recycling the saved money into infrastructure investment between now and 2018. Prime examples of such "demand friendly" cuts include cutting benefit payments and give-aways to the better-off, and axing financial incentives for rich people to save more.

A growth-boosting deficit reduction strategy relies on funding the investment plan in ways that won’t damage demand in the economy. For this reason, having picked the low-hanging fruit on demand-friendly cuts, some proportion of the necessary £31bn should come from growth-friendly tax rises. Income tax and corporation tax should be avoided. But much higher property taxes would raise money while having little impact on growth. The socially beneficial effects of a well-designed tax on housing allocation is another story. Raising that money immediately and investing it between now and 2018 would kick-start growth and help to leave UK PLC set fair for a productivity boom in the decades ahead. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.