Exclusive: Vince Cable calls on Osborne to change direction

Business Secretary argues in the New Statesman for "greatly expanded" capital spending and suggests that the Chancellor should borrow for growth.

In recent months, as the economy has continued to shrink and as borrowing has continued to rise, Vince Cable has become increasingly convinced of the need for a change of economic policy. With the Budget now just two weeks away, the Business Secretary has made his boldest intervention yet. In a 3,800 word essay for the New Statesman, Cable calls for "greatly expanded" capital spending and suggests that any increase should be funded through borrowing, not greater cuts elsewhere.

Ahead of a speech by David Cameron on the economy tomorrow, in which the Prime Minister will defend the government's strategy, he warns that Osborne's cuts to capital spending have had "economic consequences" and that the £5bn increase in last year's Autumn Statement was too "modest" to have any major effect. He adds: "one obvious question is why capital investment cannot now be greatly expanded. Pessimists say that government is incapable of mobilising capital investment quickly. But that is absurd: only five years ago the government was managing to build infrastructure, schools and hospitals at a level £20bn or more in 2009/10 than last year."

Cable then takes a significant step towards Labour's position by implying that the government should now borrow to invest.

The more controversial question is whether the government should not switch but should borrow more, at current very low interest rates, in order to finance more capital spending: building of schools and colleges; small road and rail projects; more prudential borrowing by councils for house building. This last is crucial to reviving an area which led economic recovery in the 1930s but is now severely depressed.

Such a programme would inject demand into the weakest sector of our economy – construction – and, at one remove, the manufacturing supply chain [cement, steel]. It would target two significant bottlenecks to growth: infrastructure and housing.

While maintaining that the coalition was right to adopt an aggressive deficit reduction plan in June 2010, he suggests that the "balance of risks" may have changed. 

When the government was formed it was in the context of febrile markets and worries about sovereign risk, at that stage in Greece but with the potential for contagion. As the country arguably most damaged by the banking crisis and with the largest fiscal deficit in the G20 there were good reasons to worry that the UK could lose the confidence of creditors without a credible plan for deficit reduction including an early demonstration of commitment. The main international agencies (the IMF, European Commission and OECD) and business groups stated that it judged the balance of risks correctly.

Almost three years later the question is whether the balance of risks has changed. 

He points to IMF research showing that the risk of losing market confidence as a result of higher borrowing may now be outweighed, in his words, by "the risk of public finances deteriorating as a consequence of continued lack of growth."

Osborne has consistently rejected calls to loosen fiscal policy but Cable argues that borrowing for growth "would not undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit" and may even assist it "by reviving growth". He notes that Britain's long-term debt maturity means it suffers "less from the risks of a debt spiral where refinancing maturing debt rapidly becomes impossible" and argues that "the effect on our fiscal situation of higher interest rates is in fact nowhere near as bad as having weak growth."

Constrained by collective ministerial responsibility, Cable ultimately concludes that the balance of risks remains "a matter of judgement", "which incorporates a political assessment of which risk is the least palatable". But his decision to reopen a debate long regarded as closed by Osborne shows his willingness to dissent from the Treasury line. With government unity already frayed ahead of next summer's Spending Review, the intervention will be viewed with hostility by Cable's cabinet colleagues. 

In a further act of provocation, the Business Secretary uses the essay to launch a withering dismissal of those Conservatives demanding greater deregulation of the labour market and a reduction in workers' rights. 

This bastardised ‘supply side’ economics often degenerates into a saloon bar whine about HSE inspectors, newts and birds which block new development, bloody minded workers, equalities and Eurocrats who dream up regulations for square tomatoes and straight bananas. Philosophical cover is provided by the belief that the private sector can always fill the space left by a retreating state.

In advance of Mark Carney's arrival as governor of the Bank of England in July, Cable also calls for more creative monetary policy, including the expansion of the Bank's quantitative easing programme to include private sector assets. He writes: "There is currently a pause in QE in the UK and two related ideas are being developed to sustain loose monetary policy. The first is for the Central Bank to acquire a wider range of assets from corporate loans to infrastructure project bonds. By taking risk off the private sector balance sheet, we encourage it to find new investments. This is surely sensible."

Cable says the Bank is right to consider targeting growth as well as inflation but adds that the stability provided by the current regime means "the bar for any change must be high."

Osborne, who characterises himself as a "fiscal conservative" but a "monetary activist", is likely to welcome Cable's intervention on this subject. But with the Chancellor already under pressure from Tory MPs to cut taxes, the Business Secretary's call for higher spending, potentially funded by higher borrowing, means he now faces a war on two fronts. 

Update: Shadow financial secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie has responded for Labour. He said that Cable "may at last be seeing sense" but added: "he has consistently supported a failing economic policy which has led to stagnation, falling living standards, slashed investment in infrastructure and rising borrowing to pay for the mounting costs of economic failure."

"Labour, business groups and even the IMF have spent the last two years making the case for this. If Vince Cable is finally coming round to that view he needs to start winning the argument round the Cabinet table, but his words today read like they have been written by a Secretary of State who despite being in office, is not in power."

Business Secretary Vince Cable addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in London on November 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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