Sunak opts to suck it and see

25 Nov

We must be thankful that no-one is forecasting that Government borrowing will rise to record levels this year.  Or Rishi Sunak wouldn’t have been in a position to announce that Government spending will rise at its fastest rate for 15 years.

Apologies for the sarcasm – which isn’t aimed at the Chancellor’s measures, but is meant instead to provide an introduction to the thinking behind them.

One response to a ballooning deficit is to cut the rate of growth of spending.  That’s what the Coalition did after 2010, when the deficit hit seven per cent of GDP.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting a peak of 19 per this year.  But Sunak’s response is to raise the rate of spending.  Why?

Because in 2010 George Osborne judged the deficit to be structural (he was right), and his successor judges this one to be exceptional (he’s right, too).

It is almost entirely a product of the pandemic and what has followed.  It is in this context that the OBR forecasts the economy to shrink by 11 per cent this year and unemployment to hit 2.6 million next year.

In these circumstances, the Chancellor has found it impossible to produce the four year spending review he hoped for, and has been forced to issue one for a single year instead.

Furthermore, his statement was only one side of the tax and spending coin. Today, we got the spending.  In the Spring, we will get the Budget – and the tax.

Given all this, it will be very odd if Sunak turns up then with large-scale tax rises to raise revenue quickly.  The foundation of his measures today appears to be: suck it and see.

Broadly speaking, the spending package suggests that the Chancellor is going for growth.  That’s the logic of the infrastructure spending, the coming review of regulation, the new northern bank and the enlarged Restart programme.

The Levelling-Up Fund is a classic Treasury exercise in the English centralist tradition, with its central feature of bids from the provinces to Westminster for money.  So it is in a country with relatively few local taxes.

On that point, Sunak announced “extra flexibility for Council Tax and Adult Social Care precept”.  Local authorities will like that, council taxpayers not so much.

It’s worth stressing that the OBR’s forecasts, like all such animals, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Our columnist Ryan Bourne debunked its record on this site earlier this week.

If you walk down the sunny side of the street, you will smack your lips at the thought of a Roaring Twenties effect, as employment recovers, consumers spend, the hospitality sector booms and people pile into holidays abroad.

And it may be that post-Covid changes even out for the better, with a shift in activity and spending from city centres to the suburbs and countryside, together with music, art, theatre and all the rest of it.

That might not be such a bad things for towns and their centres, at which the new Levelling Up Fund is partly aimed.  Our columnist James Frayne believes they are a core concern for provincial voters, and government listens to him.

If on the other hand you stick to the shady side, you will point to the economic equivalent of Long Covid: fearsome economic and social bills for damaged mental health, postponed operations, lost educational opportunities.

All that is a big minus for levelling-up – because it’s the disabled, poor and disadvantaged who have been hit hardest by restrictions and lockdowns, especially if they work in the private sector.

The background in recent years is not encouraging.  Since the financial crash exploded, we haven’t grown at more than 2.6 per cent a year.  That suggests recovery may be sticky.

Sunak’s persuasive manner, grip of detail and spare eloquence have served him well during this crisis.  Others holding his post would not have survived roughly ten major finance annoucements in less than a year.

It’s not as though he hasn’t sometimes had to recast his plans – as in October, when he pumped more money into his Job Support Scheme.

And if the economics of his strategy are straightforward enough, its politics was sometimes a bit odd.  If the Government’s overall plan in the short-term is expansionary, why raise the minimum wage but curb public sector pay?

If spending on nearly everything else is rising, why crack down on the 0.7 per cent aid spend?  Doing so because you think aid is wasted or the target is wasteful is one thing.

But that wasn’t the basis of Sunak’s decision – since, after all, he said that the Government intends to return to 0.7 per cent “when the fiscal situation allows”.

The Chancellor also left a big unresolved question hanging in the air.  What will the Government do about the Universal Credit uplift?  Will it be extended or not?

The sense of a statement with contradictory messages was picked up Rob Covile of the Centre for Policy Studies.  (The Treasury would do well when the Budget approaches to look at its supply side ideas.)

“Feels slightly like Treasury couldn’t decide whether the message was ‘tighten belts’ or ‘we’re still spending’,” he tweeted. “So we’re getting two or three minutes of each in turn.”

That first element in the Chancellor’s statement, plus the OBR’s horrid short-term forecasts, comes at a bad time for the Government.

For tomorrow, the toughened tiering details are announced. Lots of Conservative MPs won’t like them.  The detail of which tiers apply in which areas will be published, too.  Many Tory MPs will like those even less.

Graham Brady, Steve Baker, Mark Harper, and the Covid Recovery Group will say that the economic damage of restrictions is so severe that the Commons should not vote for more – at least, without an impact assessment.

They may not be alone.  “These measures may be a short-term strategy, but they cannot be a long-term one,” Jeremy Wright declared in the Commons during the recent debate on the lockdown regulations.

He and Edward Timpson (another ex-Minister) plus other MPs backed the Government but, sounded a cautionary note.

Will the prospect of vaccines be sufficient to rally the doubters round?  Or will they take a leaf from the book of Theresa May, who savaged the regulations during the same debate?

We shall see – but Ministers are not helping themselves by dodging requests for that impact assessment, urged by this site and others, and the subject of a dogged campaign by Mel Stride, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee.

All in all, Sunak is shaping up to go for growth.  Good for him.  Nonetheless, he must watch and wait to see how and when the economy rebounds.  Brady and company are less patient.

Robert Halfon: Who’s up for a Southern Research Group?

18 Nov

Political fusion

Is it really true, as has been suggested over the past few days, that Conservatives can only appeal to either blue-collar voters or the professional classes – but not both?

Those who know me will not doubt my commitment that the Conservative Party should be the party for workers; indeed, I’ve written that about the Workers Party many times on this website.

But, my passion for the Workers Party does not mean that we cannot, nor should not, appeal to the public in cities, as well as towns – the Putneys as well as the Pudseys.

It seems to me there is confusion about so-called metropolitan views. Of course, there is left-of-centre “wokeist metropolitanism” – a school of thought that is unlikely to ever vote Conservative, whatever policies the Government come up with.

But, protecting the NHS, cutting taxes for lower earners, freezing fuel duty, boosting skills and apprenticeships, helping small businesses, offering affordable housing (such as the £12.2 billion investment announced recently by Robert Jenrick) and Help to Buy schemes are policies that transcend the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ divide, as noted by David Goodhart.

Even measures on environmental issues, for example, can have widespread appeal, so long as they are not balanced on the backs of the poor (such as ever-increasing energy bills due to “green” taxes) and are focused on a cleaner, greener Britain (including cleaning up our beaches, tackling litter and safeguarding our forests and countryside). Those who are more sceptical about Brexit might be a bit more optimistic if they could see the reduction in VAT once we’re out of the transition period and we control our own VAT rates.

Similarly, Overseas Aid. At a time when our public services at home are financially strained, spending huge amounts on international development is extremely frustrating to many voters. However, it could be made more palatable if taxpayers money was used to fund thousands of British apprentices to work overseas in developing countries, or even to support our armed forces in some of their peacekeeping roles.

It is dangerous if we are perceived to be identifying solely with one group of citizens or class over another. If the Conservatives are truly the One Nation Party, the Government needs to find political fusion. Whilst, thanks to Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have a solid majority, to be diminished as we are in the great cities like London is neither healthy nor desirable for our party in the long run. Yes, absolutely a Workers Party…but a Workers Party that represents young professionals as much as white van men and women.

Please don’t forget the Southern side of the Blue Wall either

I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t read the words “Red Wall” in a national newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I am as delighted as any Conservative by how we won so many seats in the North. All the more extraordinary given the long-standing Labour MPs that were deposed. I would, of course, prefer it if the media wrote about the “Blue Wall” rather than red.

But, my point is a different one. Both the Government and the media classes should not forget the Southern side of the ‘blue wall’ either. The politicos and the press seem to be under the illusion that the South is paved with gold; that there are no road, rail and infrastructure issues; that every pothole is magically filled, and that no one lives in poverty.

What about the deprivation and lower educational attainment in the Southern New Towns, coastal communities, inner cities, rural coldspots?

The Centre for Education and Youth’s 2019 report, ‘Breaking the Link? Attainment, poverty and rural schools’, found that in areas designated as “countryside living” – a vast proportion of the South West – the correlation between the proportion of pupils on Free School Meals and their attainment 8 scores was 0.58 – the highest of all types of local authority area. In other words, “rural schools have particular difficulty breaking the link between poverty and low pupil attainment”.

Seaside village Jaywick, in Essex, was named the most deprived area overall for the third time in a row in 2019. We also know, from the Social Market Foundation’s 2019 research, Falling off a cliff, that average employee annual pay in coastal communities was about £4,700 lower than in the rest of Britain in 2018. These areas also saw “much weaker economic growth since the financial crisis than other parts of the country” which will demand urgent Government attention as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Does the South not feature in policy making? Perhaps if there was a Southern side-of-the-wall Research Group, then these MPs might be invited to breakfast at Number 10 and policy meetings with Ministers.  Anyone for another MP Whatsapp group? Perhaps we have enough already.

As I wrote in the first section of this article, we must be careful not to ‘politic’ or govern in silos. We should not Balkanise the Tory Party. Conservatives must genuinely be a One Nation party for all our country – not just parts of it.

Home education

Given the name of this website, I suspect many readers are fully in favour of home education if that is what a parent decides. Although personally I think a child is better off at school – not just for daily education, activities, wellbeing and socialisation with other pupils, I also believe in a free society by which we support parents’ decisions about educating their child. Clearly, many parents who teach their children at home give them a wonderful education. However, this is not always the case across the board.

The Department for Education has a duty to ensure that every child has a proper education – that doesn’t stop just because the child is learning from home. There should be a national register or regular inspections to ensure that these pupils are getting the education they need for their futures. Perhaps, each home educated child could be linked to a nearby school for this purpose. These are all matters that my Education Select Committee is considering as we begin an inquiry into home education.

Rightly, schools are held accountable for the learning and environment they provide, whether that be through Ofsted, local councils, the regional school commissioners or the Department for Education (DfE).  So, too, must there be transparency and accountability for parents providing an education to their children at home. The DfE should have a national register of all home educated children and gather data to assess levels of attainment.

In a recent report on home education, the Local Government Association stated:

“Using evidence provided by councils, school leaders and parents, the LGA estimates that in 2018/19, 282,000 children in England may have missed out on formal full-time education – around 2 per cent of the school age population – but this figure could be as high as 1.14 million depending on how ‘formal’ and ‘full-time’ is defined…. gaps in the coordination of policies and guidance around pupil registration, attendance, admissions, exclusions and non-school education is allowing children to slip through the net, with children with additional vulnerabilities – such as social, behavioural, medical or mental health needs – most at risk of doing so.”

Whilst many parents educate their home educated children to the best of their ability, and with much success, there are too many children falling through the cracks. It is right that there are changes.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.