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Plan B: Start a national investment bank

Dear Chancellor,

In 2008, you said that a Keynesian stimulus would be a "cruise missile aimed at the heart of recovery". Three years on, may I suggest that austerity is a "cruise missile aimed at the heart of recovery"? If everyone is being austere at the same time - householders paying off their credit-card debt as the Prime Minister wants, businesses deleveraging, the government cutting its spending - the economy is bound to shrink. It is one thing to be austere when the need is to reduce overheating. It's quite a different thing when the economy is freezing and the need is to restart growth. The question is: where is growth going to come from?

I accept that, for reasons of politics and confidence, you cannot now abandon your commitment to your deficit-reduction programme. What we need, though, is to revive the conceptual distinction between current and capital spending. You should aim to achieve a balance of revenues and expenditure on current account, but augment capital expenditure. Banks cannot be forced to lend, or households and business forced to borrow. Therefore, the government has to provide the stimulus for new capital investment on a scale sufficient to overcome the cumulative forces of austerity. But, for the sake of the public accounts, and also to give confidence, it would be far better that the programme of public investment be entrusted to a separate, independent institution.

You already have an instrument to hand: the Green Bank. But it is to be given only £3bn and prevented from borrowing. A bank that can't borrow is no bank at all. We need a proper national investment bank, with more capital and the ability to raise private money.

My proposal is very simple. You should use part of the proceeds of the sale of government shares in bailed-out banks to increase the capitalisation of the national investment bank. A limited fiscal commitment - say, £10bn in subscribed capital, with contributions drawn down over the next four years - would allow the new bank to finance enough spending to more than offset the £87bn of reductions in public investment planned before 2015. In this way, it could bolster confidence and increase demand without adding to the deficit. To those who say there are no "shovel-ready" schemes, I would reply that the commitment to a large programme of capital investment, of itself, would give confidence ahead of the start of the investment.

The difference between the total and the government contribution would be funded from the bond markets. This is the magic of leverage, of course: the magic that got such a black name as a cause of the crisis. But a national investment bank is an opportunity to turn that magic to a constructive end.

In fact, an investment bank would kill three birds with one stone. First, through its funding programme, it would create a new class of bonds - long-term, but with a yield pick-up over gilts, reflecting the modest credit risk of the bank - which could include features that fit the needs of the UK pensions industry, the need for renewing infrastructure and the demands for energy efficiency. Second, by lending for the long term, it would help long-term growth. And finally, by ramping up its operations now - when the corporate recovery is being hamstrung by shrinking bank lending and fiscal austerity - it can offer a boost to aggregate demand when it is needed most.

Robert Skidelsky is emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick. He is a crossbench peer and a biographer of John Maynard Keynes

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This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.