How to boost the debt without borrowing: spend on houses

The Help to Buy program uses some nice accounting tweaks to get away with being deficit neutral.

One final, quick point on Help to Buy.

One of the two measures announced, in which the Government provides equity loans to people buying a new build house worth under £600,000, involves real cash outlays. The Treasury has budgeted £4.13bn for it:

But the spending counts towards the central government net cash requirement, and it counts towards public sector net debt (Table 2.1 footnote 3, page 65), but it doesn't count towards public sector net borrowing – also known as "the deficit".

The reason is that the government is spending cash, but getting back an asset of equivalent value – in this case, equity in £20bn worth of houses. And when those houses are sold, the loan gets paid back. So assuming house prices continue rising faster than inflation – a fair assumption, given it's basically government policy at this point – it's not really even borrowing, just converting a liquid asset into an illiquid one.

There's still some risk involved. If one of these houses burns down, the Government loses its stake. And if the house is never sold, the Government never gets paid back.

Except. That's basically what infrastructure spending is. You trade £3bn worth of money for £3bn worth of windmills. If you don't want the windmills, you can sell them. And if you get unlucky, you've lost your money.

The Chancellor is perfectly happy to borrow for a guaranteed payoff in the future when it plays well with his voters, but not when it works well with the economy. Shame, that.

Some new houses. 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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.