Adonis's review should galvanise the North East and its neighbours

While the coalition dithers on its growth strategy, the Labour peer has set out precisely the rebalancing the nation needs to recover from the crash.

The launch of the North East Independent Economic Review, chaired by Andrew Adonis, provides further evidence that while the government dithers on economic growth strategy, others are prepared to set out their stalls. First Heseltine, then the Northern Economic Futures Commission and now Adonis all point to the importance of local and regional economies in returning the nation to prosperity.

Adonis sets out a North East vision comprised of "making, trading and exporting" – precisely the rebalancing the nation needs to recover from an economic shock which started in the financial sector but which has had its greatest impact in the north. It calls for the creation of 60,000 private sector jobs and makes clear that the north east has some key competitive advantages to enable that rebalancing and job creation to happen if only opportunities can be unlocked.

The review makes proposals to boost exports and supply chains and co-ordinate inward investment activities through the formation of North East International, it calls for a North East Innovation Board to oversee the development of key innovation centres in life sciences, automotive manufacture and offshore engineering, and it makes the case for a regional business bank and a successor body for the NE JEREMIE, European and social enterprise funds overseen by a NE Investment and Finance Board. In many ways this puts back together again some of the functions that were once carried out by the regional development agency but with a fresh purpose and momentum.

Skills, widely accepted to be critical to driving growth in regions like the North East, also have a key role in the plan with proposals for a North East Schools Challenge, a doubling of the numbers of youth apprenticeships, increasing number of young people in higher education by 1 per cent per annum and a payment-by-results component for local training providers. It also calls for a strategic plan for transport and a NE Infrastructure Fund to fund a series of key priorities including smartcard ticketing, the A1 Western Bypass and A19 developments, and a series of rail improvements including to maximise freight potential. These should be led by a new body: Transport North East.

All of the proposals are sensible and progressive and emphasise what the North East can do for itself if it can now get its act together, establish the Combined Authority it has recently announced, and come up with a delivery plan that turns aspiration into action. Three questions, though, remain.

First, there is the matter of scale. While many measures make sense at the North East level and require the kind of co-ordination that Adonis has proposed, there are a few where the North East will have to work more collaboratively beyond its borders to maximise its potential. On inward investment, innovation and transport in particular, North Eastern activities need to be quickly integrated with activity taking place in Tees Valley but perhaps, more importantly, with other Northern LEPs. For example, Transport North East will only be able to achieve its objectives of faster journey times between key cities if it quickly gets behind plans to decentralise the Northern Rail and Transpennine franchises being organised by the emergent 'Transport for the North' collaboration.

Second, there is central government. Adonis is right not to be too demanding and let Heseltine do the heavy-lifting in this regard, but in most aspects of the review, some central government leniency will be required to allow proposals the freedom – and investment – to really take off. Changes to the national FDI system, University Technical Colleges, locating the British Investment bank in the North East would all be cases in point but long term fiscal autonomy and much greater economic decentralisation must be the wider goals for all Northern LEPs and these will only be achieved with a wider Northern voice.

Finally, there is the question of time. With the Financial Times reporting that places such as Sunderland will be £618 per person worse off than before as a result of welfare changes, one wonders whether any plan of this nature can offset such a hit to the local economy. Clearly there is a very real sense that things can only get worse before they get better, but Adonis and his review team have put together a coherent plan and for now it’s the only game in town.

Ed Cox is director of IPPR North


Labour peer and former transport secretary Andrew Adonis.

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

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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research