Austerity has cost the UK £3,500 for every household

The maths of cuts.

Counterfactuals are tricky. How can we know for certain what the British economy would look like if austerity had never been implemented?

Well, we can't be certain. But with a few assumptions, we can ale an educated guess, and that's precisely what Alan Taylor has done at VoxEU. The assumptions he makes aren't uncontroversial, but they are easily defensible, and the results are stunning.

First, we have to assume that the government actually did have the ability to avoid austerity. That is, if Osborne hadn't rapidly started to slash the state, would the bond markets have refused to loan to us shortly after? It seems unlikely, especially given, as Taylor points out, gilt yields remain incredibly low despite our debt-to-GDP level rising and our real GDP worse than predicted. The bond market basically doesn't care about the national debt, at least while it's at the levels it is now; instead, as opportunities for investment have frozen worldwide, yields in the UK have collapsed, along with those in the US and Japan.

So the UK didn't have to implement austerity; it was a choice. The second assumption is that policymakers "care about timing fiscal adjustments so as to mitigate damage to the real GDP path of the economy", and won't just splurge the money wherever they can find political support for it. That is a fairly weighty assumption, to be sure, and one which a lot of people working at the intersection of politics and economics might question. At the same time, though, it's a pretty necessary assumption to do much thinking about macroeconomics, not least because if you assume politicians are idiots, it becomes pretty hard to justify any state spending at all.

If you buy those two basic assumptions, Taylor writes, then you can start to work backwards from the observed effects of austerity in other countries to build up the counter-factual. This part is just the same as we've seen again and again: austerity hurts growth. A lot.

Last year, for instance Paul Krugman did a rough-and-ready calculation and estimated that cutting budgets by 1 per cent of GDP since the recession reduced GDP by around 1.25 per cent. That's not supposed to be generalizable – but it does seem true for a specific time (2008-2012) and place (Europe).

Taylor's model is far more robust: it takes account of allocation bias (the fact that the state of a country's economy may have influenced whether or not it applied austerity measures), and also allows for the fact that austerity has different affects applied in a boom or slump. And it finds a massive effect in a slump, compounded by the fact that, as Taylor says, "a dead cat bounces": given we'd expect more future growth the deeper in a slump we are (as the economy catches up with where it should be), there's a tendency to underestimate the damage of austerity.

But this is all preamble. You're here for the money shot. How much has austerity cost Britain? Three per cent of GDP:

Simon Wren-Lewis amortises that across the UK: it comes to £3,500 for every UK household over those three years. Bear that in mind next time you hear the government talking about how much our welfare bill is. Once upon a time, we had that money.

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation