We need investment, not cuts, to deal with our fiscal headaches

Rather than using the forecast structural surplus to pay down the national debt, the government should invest it in science, skills and childcare.

The financial crisis and subsequent downturn had a huge impact on the public finances. In two years, from 2007-08 to 2009-10, public sector net debt jumped almost twenty percentage points from 37% to 56% of GDP. So when the current government came into power, it did so promising to mend our public finances. It set itself a fiscal mandate to eliminate the structural deficit and a supplementary target to have public sector debt falling by the start of the next parliament – 2015-16.

Poor growth has made these targets hard to achieve. But finally, after years of additional cuts have been pencilled in, there is some good news ahead of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on Thursday. Thanks to growth picking up, borrowing is looking better than expected. There are more cuts to come, but for once it’s looking likely that the government will be on track to meet the targets as set out in the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s last forecast without having to find more savings. Depending on what view the OBR takes of the growth we have had, the likelihood of meeting the mandate may even have risen.

Earlier this year, the OBR expected the fiscal mandate to be met by 2016-17. But what happens after that? The OBR forecast that the structural deficit would turn into a structural surplus of £15bn in 2017-18. It’s worth stopping to think about what this means. The structural part of the current budget is the part that doesn’t change as the economy goes through its usual cycle of downturns and upturns. A zero structural surplus would mean that the government balances its books over the course of an economic cycle. A structural surplus means that it goes even further than this – allowing it to pay down national debt. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has pointed to the ageing population as the reason for continued austerity throughout the next Parliament. This could be a reasonable strategy. But it might not be the best one.  

The OBR’s Fiscal Sustainability Report, which looks at the long-term outlook for the public finances, shows the debt-to-GDP ratio nicely falling for around a decade after 2017-18, but as the ageing population kicks in, it’s set to sharply rise again in the 2030s, driven by rising health, social care and pension costs. By the early 2060s, public sector net debt is set to hit nearly 100% of GDP.

These levels make our current problems seem rather small in comparison. And they also raise the question of whether the ageing population is something that can really be tackled through cuts alone. The OBR numbers show that if we can boost the economy’s productivity, debt wouldn’t start rising until around two decades later. But in recent years, our productivity growth has been sluggish. If it doesn’t pick up, we may even fail to meet the OBR’s central case scenario. 

So there are big gains to be had from boosting our long-term productivity. The £15bn could be used to treble the science research budget, treble our adult skills budget or introduce universal childcare, enabling more parents to go out to work – with money still left over. The choice isn’t straightforward.  The Chancellor – and future Chancellors – are facing a new trade-off, one where too little investment now could risk a huge fiscal headache in the future.

George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.