Yet again, the budget pushes the North a little further from the South

It's two nation Britain.

With growth forecasts halved to 0.6 per cent this year, and unemployment rising again in the north of England, this needed to be a budget for growth across the UK. Instead, the headline measures will do more to further inflate house prices and childcare costs in London and very little to boost regional economic opportunities. Meanwhile, further public spending cuts – not least in pay and benefits - will have a continued deflationary impact on many Northern towns and cities.

The budget has come on a day when unemployment figures show the North-South divide widening further – up by 10,000 people across the north of England in the past quarter compared with a 17,000 fall in London.

Measures such as the increase in the income tax threshold and the National Insurance allowance for small businesses will be welcomed by many but won’t have the effect of rebalancing the economy – rather, they will tend to benefit those areas where wages are higher and the business base is broader.

More significantly, measures to increase new house building are to be welcomed but there is a significant risk that making it easier for borrowers will simply prop up prices – indeed, inflate prices – rather than getting additional homes built. It is not clear that Help to Buy will generate additional new housing starts, beyond what would have been undertaken anyway (which will certainly not be the case for mortgage subsidies that are not linked to new-build) and the 15,000 new homes promised in the budget go nowhere near most estimates which suggest we need to build an extra 250,000 new homes a year to meet rising demand. Similarly, childcare changes will soon be wiped out as providers inflate costs with little additional provision.

Of those measures that will stimulate growth it is too little too late. It is encouraging news that the Chancellor has broadly endorsed the Heseltine report but with government sources suggesting that resources going into the "single pot" will be in the “lower billions” rather than the £49 billion Heseltine recommended – and even then not until April 2015 – this will hardly be a short-term stimulus.

The £3bn boost in infrastructure spending is something that IPPR North and many others have been calling for many months but will do little to help us catch the levels of capital investment spent in other nations and once again won’t land until 2015/16. Furthermore, we cannot hope this will boost regional growth when we currently plan to spend £2,595 per person on transport in London compared to just £115 per person in the north. Transport spending must be devolved more fairly to have a real impact.

With much evidence pointing towards the critical role regional economic development is playing in stimulating national economies across the developed world, this budget – however populist – will do little to restore the economic health of the nation and will ultimately be regarded as a missed opportunity.

But perhaps the bigger tragedy than this missed opportunity is the fact that regional prosperity hangs so much on central government decision-making at all. With greater fiscal decentralisation economic growth could be better tailored to the particular needs of local and regional economies and less dependent upon the big levers so clumsily wielded by chancellor after chancellor. Such reform is long overdue.  

Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR