Why isn't the government doing all it can to cut the deficit?

There's a whole class of policies which could cut the deficit in the medium to long term, which the government is ignoring. It's a sign of how weak public debate has become.

"Save Money, Improve Student Learning, and Boost The Economy By Paying Teachers to Quit Their Jobs", writes Slate's Matt Yglesias.

The rationale is simple. Teaching, particularly American teaching, is a profession where pay scales very strongly with experience. Thanks to strong unions and a relatively flat hierarchy, it's common for teachers to receive annual pay increases. As such, a teacher with 25 years experience will end up having a salary significantly higher than a teacher with five years experience.

That's fine if talent also scales with experience; but if it doesn't, it may be the case that it's cheaper to pay veteran teachers off, and hire younger ones. Yglesias writes:

Yet when Maria Fitzpatrick and Michael Lovenheim looked at an early retirement incentive program that Illinois implemented in the mid-1990s they did not find evidence of this adverse impact: "We find the program did not reduce test scores" they write "likely, it increased them, with positive effects most pronounced in lower-SES schools."

That finding probably isn't applicable to the British education system for a number of reasons: our pay agreements are different, our school structures are different, and frankly, the fact that American test results are the determining factor of success in the study does not inspire confidence. But Yglesias' suggestion of how that finding be used is generalisable. He argues:

The federal government could borrow a bunch of money at today's low interest rates and make it available to states and cities that want to pursue cost-saving early retirement incentive programs. The cash up front aspect of the ERI program would goose the economy in all the usual ways. But the long-term savings to state and city governments would improve the long-term fiscal outlook and thus boost "confidence" (or whatever). Kids would be no worse off in school. Districts would have to hire a bunch of new teachers, opening up some job opportunities for young people. And it's all voluntary—veteran teachers who'd rather stay on the job and get paid what they're owed can do so.

There's a gaping disconnect between the number of interventions which we know pretty well can save money in the long term, and the number we actually enact. Whether or not this particular one would work remains to be seen, but in general there are, at any one time, a huge number of things the state could do to lower its spending in the long term.

In the British context, a lot of them fall under the banner of "reversing the cuts"; the false economy by which funding for crucial services like legal aid or preventative healthcare was cut means that, while spending in the first years will be lower, in the long term they won't do anything for the deficit at all. (Or, even worse, a hard limit on all spending might result in the deficit genuinely being reduced, but at the cost of vast reductions in human welfare).

Of course, rhetoric mocking the concept of "borrowing more to borrow less" renders this entire category of valuable policies unsupportable, either by the Government, which would be accused of hypocrisy, or by the Opposition, which appears to have been stung too frequently by the barb to risk giving more ammo. So we're not likely to see deficit funded payoffs of veteran teachers any time soon, and so the government will continue to struggle to keep its borrowing low in the long term.

A teacher, teaching. 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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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