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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Heathrow decision: 6 things we learnt about the third runway plans

Affected homeowners will get 25 per cent extra for their homes. 

After years of ferocious campaigning by both Heathrow and Gatwick to be the site of a new airport runway, Heathrow has triumphed. The government has accepted the recommendations of the Airports Commission and backed a third runway at Heathrow.

Confirming the decision, the Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “The decisions taken earlier today are long overdue but will serve this country for generations to come."

So what happens now? Here is what we learnt:

1. It’ll be a while

Grayling said the draft policy statement will be published early in 2017. There will then be a full public consultation, before MPs get a chance to debate the details and vote on the proposals.

Only after that, will Heathrow be allowed to submit a planning application for the third runway.

2. Affected homeowners get a bung

Building a third runway will require the destruction of local homes, and Grayling said these homeowners can expect to be paid 25 per cent above the market rate. All associated costs, like stamp duty and legal fees, will be covered. 

3. So will the local communities

The government is promising £700m for insulating homes against noise, and it is floating the idea of a Community Compensation Fund that would make a further £750m available to local communities, although the details will be confirmed through the planning process. 

4. No flying at night

The government is demanding that flights are banned for six and a half hours a night to give locals some peace. Heathrow will also be expected to continue to give local residents a timetable of aircraft noise.

5. Air quality matters

Heathrow’s successful proposal included an ultra-low emissions zone for all airport vehicles by 2025. The airport can only get planning approval if it can meet air quality legal requirements. 

6. There will be a by-election

Zac Goldsmith, the MP for Richmond Park, is to resign in protest at the decision, and is expected to run again as an independent candidate. Speaking in the Commons, he warned that the decision to choose Heathrow was full of legal complexity and "will be a millstone around the government's neck". 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.