Revealed: why the deficit actually rose today

Strip out all special factors and total borrowing was £400m higher in 2012-13 than in the previous year.

The boast that the deficit "is falling" and "will continue to fall each and every year" has been crucial to George Osborne's political strategy, so what do the final set of figures for 2012-13 show? At first sight, it appears as if the Chancellor's luck has held. Excluding the transfer of the Royal Mail pension plan and the cash from the Bank of England's Asset Purchase Facility, public sector net borrowing was £120.6bn last year, £300m lower than in 2011-12. It's worth noting that this includes the one-off windfall of £2.4bn from the 4G auction (without which the deficit would be £2.1bn higher) and that borrowing was originally forecast to be £89bn, but Osborne's boast still holds.

Or does it? Strip out all special factors (including the reclassification of Northern Rock Asset Management and Bradford & Bingley as central government bodies) and total borrowing actually rose in 2012-13. As p. 7 of the ONS release states, "on this measure Public Sector Borrowing (PSNB ex) for the year to date is £0.4billion higher than for the same period last year." These figures are of almost no economic significance. Whether borrowing marginally rose or marginally fell makes little difference to the parlous state of the British economy. But they are of immense political significance, which is why Osborne went to such extraordinary lengths to ensure the headline figures would show a fall. As I noted following the Budget, the Treasury forced government departments to underspend by a remarkable £10.9bn in the final months of this year and delayed payments to some international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank. Noting that the £10.9bn was around double the average underspend of the previous five years, IFS head Paul Johnson said:

There is every indication that the numbers have been carefully managed with a close eye on the headline borrowing figures for this year. It is unlikely that this has led either to an economically optimal allocation of spending across years or to a good use of time by officials and ministers.

That Osborne is forced to resort to ever more creative accounting is evidence of how badly off track his deficit reduction plan is. The government is currently forecast to borrow £245bn more than expected in 2010, a figure that means, as Labour's Chris Leslie noted today, that it will take "400 years to balance the books". To all of this, of course, Osborne's reply is "but you would borrow even more!" Finding a succinct response to that claim remains one of the greatest challenges facing Ed Balls and Ed Miliband. 

George Osborne leaves number 11 Downing Street in central London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.