The usual politics of elections might dictate promising lots of goodies during the campaign and tightening the purse strings once safely in Government. George Osborne appears to have somewhat turned this upside down. The Conservative manifesto promised to eliminate borrowing by 2018-19. Today’s budget speech pushed back the deadline to 2019-20.
Annual day-to-day departmental spending is to be cut by just under £18 billion by 2019-20, or around five per cent in real terms. That doesn’t sound too bad: the OBR says that no year will see cuts as severe as in 2011-12 and 2012-13. However, not all is rosy. Where public spending goes is still seeing big changes. Promises for some public services will mean difficult choices for others. The NHS is to receive an extra £10 billion in real terms by 2020-21, and the MoD budget is to rise by 0.5 per cent in real terms a year. Prior to the election, promises were made on schools funding and international aid. Taken together, this could mean day-to-day spending rising by just under £10 billion by 2019-20 in some areas.
So other public services will still need to make substantial savings to pay for money going to the NHS, schools, aid and defence. However, departments will have more time to find the full savings needed, with the deadlines now pushed back. That’s important because after the last Parliament, the easiest savings will have already been made. In the SMF’s pre-Budget publication, One More Time, we argue that Government will need to take more time in trying to identify the next tranche of savings. Most likely, big reforms will be needed that look ahead to the longer-term challenge of an ageing population, as pointed out in the OBR’s Fiscal Sustainability Review. Giving departments breathing room to do this will ensure that big reforms are not rushed through at a higher price later on.
We will need to wait until the Autumn Spending Review to find out how different departments are set to share the cuts. However, an important principle that must run through the entire Spending Review programme is the need for investment in long-term growth to deliver sustainable rising incomes. Here, there may be reasons to worry. Whilst there is to be a levy on firms is to raise additional sums to fund apprenticeships, gross investment spending has been marked down compared to the March Budget. The roads investment fund paid for by Vehicle Excise Duty will only kick in at the end of the Parliament. The new fiscal rule targeting overall borrowing including investment also increases the vulnerability of capital spending.
Given the UK’s record on productivity, now is not the time to slow down on capital investment. George Osborne has offered some reprieve on austerity. Let’s hope it gets used wisely.