Why is the Spending Review being held now? So Osborne can try and beat up Ed Balls

The Chancellor's decision to set out plans for 2015-16 nearly two years in advance has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with economics.

One question that has been asked all too rarely in coverage of the Spending Review is "why it is being held now?" There is no constitutional or economic requirement for George Osborne to set out spending plans for 2015-16 this far in advance. The current spending period (2011-15) doesn't end until April 2015 and it would have been prudent to wait until the preceding October (as in the case of the previous two reviews) when more recent forecasts will have been produced. 

Osborne's decision not to do so has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with economics. By announcing spending limits for the first year after the election, the Conservatives’' chief political strategist is seeking to draw the battlelines in his party's favour. He knows that if Labour accepts his plans it will be accused of intellectual surrender and that if it rejects them it will be accused of fiscal recklessness.

As apprentices of Gordon Brown, who similarly used the baseline as a weapon of political war, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were well prepared for this trap. Their pre-emptive response was to accept Osborne's current spending limits, while leaving open the possibility of greater capital investment. For both political and economic reasons, it was the right decision. While the public remain sceptical of the Keynesian case for higher borrowing, polls show that they recognise the benefits of investing in areas such as housing, which boost output in the short and long run, generate employment and ultimately aid deficit reduction. With its own currency, its own independent monetary policy and its above average debt maturity, Britain can afford to borrow for growth without fear of a dangerous rise in bond yields. The risks of inaction, in the form of permanently lower growth and higher unemployment, far outweigh the risks of action.
 
Nearly two years before the end of the current spending period, Osborne's relentless focus should have been on generating growth (as ConservativeHome's Mark Wallace also argues this morning), not on squeezing £11.5bn of cuts out of ministers who may not even be around to implement them. But ever since he entered office, the Chancellor has rarely been able to resist the temptation to put politics before economics. Forget growth, forget jobs, forget deficit reduction even, Osborne has got an election to win and he thinks beating up Ed Balls will help. Your fate, dear voter, is the last thing on his mind today. 
George Osborne walks along The Strand towards a branch of Lloyds bank. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation