We Need To Talk About: GERS (2018-19 Edition)

“Fact be virtuous, or vicious, as Fortune pleaseth” – Thomas Hobbes

It’s that time again! The annual GERS report has been released and interested parties continue to analyse, pick apart and spin the numbers as required. And my now annual tradition of diving into the numbers continues with another installment.

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You can read my coverage of GERS 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 behind those links.

You can read the report and download all of the data tables for this year’s report here.

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2017-18 Edition)

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” – Mark Twain

There’s no day that’s guaranteed to set the heather alight amongst Scottish political social media sects like the release day of the annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report – also known as GERS.

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I want to make one thing clear up front. No serious commentator now suggests that GERS can be used as is as a projection of the finances of an independent Scotland. My 2016 paper “Beyond GERS” shows some of the changes that would need to be made for this to be the case. But as a set of accounts for Scotland, the region of the UK, I’m content to use GERS as it is. Maybe improvements can and should still be made, but this is true for all statistical publications and the team behind the report do the best they can within their remit.

So what does this year’s publication tell us about Scotland, the region? Continue reading

We (Still) Need To Talk About: Budget Underspends

“Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” – Walter Cronkite

It’s that time of year again. Amazingly, despite the looming catastrophe that is Brexit, this week has been one of those “slow news” weeks. Of the kind that manage to get pages out of very minor things like essentially reprinting old stories with the numbers slightly updated.

I am, of course, talking about the perennial “Scottish Government Underspend” story.

A screengrab of the Herald article on the budget underspend. Headline "SNP government budget underspend almost £500 million"

I covered this before back in the early days of this blog (it remains the most read article on here so far – even excluding the annual reposts). Others, like Wings Over Scotland, have covered it pretty much every year since.

Here’s the short version though.

  1. Opponents are complaining that the Scottish Government aren’t spending everything they’ve been given in the Block Grant or raised through taxes and are claiming that the Government are starving services of resources.
  2. This year the “underspend” is “almost £500 million” (actually, the article later says that it’s £453 million).
  3. But the Scottish Budget is pretty much fixed annually.
  4. And the Scottish Government has extremely limited borrowing powers for revenue – £600 million per year, £1.75 million maximum.
  5. If it DID try to use them, you can bet that the same opponents would be raging at the thought of the Scottish Government going into debt.
  6. The solution to avoid debt is to budget conservatively – if you had to set an ice-cream cone budget at the start of the year but your ice-cream purchases varied between 800 and 1,200 cones depending on weather – you’d need to budget for 1,200. If you only bought 800, then you’d have a 400 ice-cream cone underspend.

Without borrowing powers or an independent currency, budget underspends are an inevitable feature of the annual budget.

Though complicating the above point is that until 2006-07, Scottish Executive underspends were, in great part, retained by the UK Government. This was corrected after a negotiation between the UK Government and the then new SNP Scottish Government and the accumulated £1.5 billion was gradually fed into the budgets of the next several years.

An excerpt from an Audit Scotland report detailing the

Since then, underspend money gets carried over to next year’s budget (though, as that budget will have an underspend too it’s a bit of a moot point).

One thing often missed in the “Budget Underspend” headlines is the actual nature of the sum involved. It’s not all cash sitting in the bank. Some of it will be due to underspending due to less-than-projected spending items (like the ice-cream cone budget issue). Some of it will be due to projects coming in underbudget possibly due to good management, possibly due to currency or price fluctuations (if your ice-cream cones cost £1 in January but drop to £0.80 by June, you might underspend even if you still buy 1,200 cones).

But a good chunk of the underspend could be from things like depreciation of assets which can’t be spent on other things at all – even if the asset is sold (The metaphor gets a little strained here, but if your ice-cream cone is worth less as a half-eaten, melted pile than it was when you bought it fresh, it’s not as if you can sell the cone and pocket the difference in price).

Another thing often missing from these headlines is the inevitable revision afterwards – calculating National budgets down to the penny turns out to be quite tricky. If you remember last year’s headline that the government had underspent by £191 million, you probably missed the reporting that that figure was later revised down to only £85 million after final accounting adjustments were made.

Indeed, this year’s figures have ALREADY been revised downwards. Stripping out the non-cash items and money already budgeted for but not yet spent then it only leaves around £66 million to be spent on something else.

But £66 million is still a fair bit of money though isn’t it? Surely, the government could just, you know, budget better?

To answer that question we’d be best to do another thing that doesn’t really come across in reporting if one looks at the situation one headline at a time. Examine the trend.

To that end, I’ve spend a fair bit of time trawling through annual Consolidated Accounts to pull together the underspends from this and previous years. I managed to get back to the accounts for the year 2005-2006 before the trail gets fragmented. Before this point, the Scottish Executive accounts operated in a substantially different way (see the segment on Resource Accounting and Budgeting here). Underspends still happened, but comparing them like-for-like with years after 2004 may not be strictly fair. I also haven’t been able to locate the 2002-03 underspend at all.

As far as I can tell though and if the revision mentioned stands, this year’s underspend may well be the lowest since the start of devolution.

A bar chart of Scottish budget underspends since devolution. There is a clear trend downwards from the 2000-2001 high of £718 million down to the 2017-18 low of £66 million.

And if we compare the underspends to the budget as a whole we begin to see just how small a story this all becomes. The Scottish Government’s devolved budget is on the order of £32 billion. A £66 million underspend is about 0.21% of that budget – or about 18 hours worth of spending across the year.

The underspend bar chart converted to percentages of the total budget. From 4% in 2000-2001 to 0.21% in 2017-18

Even the initial estimate of £453 million was about 1.4% of  the total budget – if it really was all spendable cash, it’d be the equivalent of about five days worth of spending.

This is not to say that the budget underspend won’t become an issue. It was simplier back in the days when the bulk of the Scottish budget came from the block grant and tax powers were both limited and largely unused. Now, with divergent income tax rates and bands and an impossibly complex Fiscal Framework, there is a risk that the devolution settlement gets strained to breaking point. The David Hume institute has described it as an “interesting cocktail” of arrangements.

I don’t know what the future holds for this story. I could see a time, possibly as soon as next year, where the Scottish Government revenue budget slips from “underspend” to “overspend”. I already know what the reaction of the opponents will be if that happens.

I could hope that the media will up its game here and try to explain these issue in more detail than an attention grabbing headline.

Sadly, I can see my 2015 article just being reposted again in 2019.

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We Need To Talk About: The Growth Commission Report

If this is a discussion document – It’s time to start discussing it.

The Growth Commission’s long-awaited report is finally out and will surely take some time to fully digest. It has been described as a discussion document and a starting point for the revitalised case for independence; not the final word on SNP policy or national trajectory.

In many ways, the report covers ground now very familiar to campaigners in the independence debate. We’re all now quite familiar with the deep and systemic flaws of the UK’s economic system especially its regional inequality which, quite frankly, is embarrassing when compared to neighbouring countries in Europe.

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(Source: Eurostat)

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We Need To Talk About: Hypothecated Taxes

Hypothecated taxes are designed to undermine the NHS – Prof. Richard Murphy

There’s been an idea floating around recently – mostly pushed by the Lib Dems but floated elsewhere too – that the solution to NHS England’s current, catastrophic crisis is an additional income-linked tax (either a new tax or an addition to income tax or National Insurance) which would raise money specifically for health spending.

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Queuing for bedspace in an English hospital

Other schemes have been suggested, like an addition to income tax to be spent on education. This idea of having a dedicated tax which raises revenue for a specific purpose is known as ‘hypothecation‘ and here is why it is a terrible idea.

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We Need To Talk About: The Deficit

Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact. – Barack Obama

Whenever we talk about national budgets, it doesn’t take long before someone mentions the “national deficit” and the “national debt”. Indeed, as I’ve noted in some of my commentary on GERS, sometimes it can seem like this is the only thing that makes it to the headlines at all. The almost unchallenged “wisdom” is that a government spending more than it raises in taxes is a terribly bad thing. It’ll leave future generations burdened with debt and, anyway, you wouldn’t run a household’s finances that way, would you?

This is a wisdom that has led us to Austerity and there is barely a politician out there who speaks for any other ideology. It’s not just the Tories. Corbyn’s team is at it, at least  by degrees and even Nicola Sturgeon often speaks the same language when defending Scotland’s finances. (And, yes, I’ve used that same language in the past too. Life is about learning.)

Of course, the root of the obsession lies with the fact that the “national deficit” is something that seems quite close to the politicians and therefore it’s something that they should be “sorting out”. But maybe the economy is a bit less simple than this. Maybe, like the fable of the blind men appraising the elephant, one can get a false impression of the whole by getting too close to one detail.

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We Need To Talk About: Central Bank Independence

“The Treasury…may by order give the Bank directions with respect to monetary policy if they are satisfied that the directions are required in the public interest and by extreme economic circumstances” – Section 19, Bank of England Act 1998.

Theresa May is getting nervous. She’s seen the polls slip away from her. She’s seen the abject rejection of conservative politics first in Scotland and now in England too. She has just admitted that she jumped into her personal snap election whilst her party was completely unprepared to fight it. She is far from “strong and stable.

And now she’s getting worried by the growing pull towards the more interventionist economic policy advocated by Jeremy Corbyn and has responded with a speech defending Austerity and celebrating free market economics on the day of the 20th anniversary of the independence of the Bank of England. And so has begun fairly vapid tirades warning against the “dangers” of nationalism and populism.

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2016-17 Edition)

“The GERS figures are not meant to be anything other than a way of showing the current position under the present arrangements.” – The BBC 

The annual Government Expenditure and Revenue report is out and, as with previous years, I’ve written an analysis of the report and what it means for Scotland. The GERS report itself can be downloaded here.

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A more detailed analysis I have prepared for Common Weal can also be read here.

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The UK is a deeply unequal union and London continues to capture a greater and greater proportion of the wealth of the state to the detriment of everywhere else. This single fact has to frame everything we think and say about the finances of Scotland.

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We Need To Talk About: Social Housing

“Before you can start building [houses] on any scale, every single industry in society has got to be organised and stimulated into production.” – Aneurin Bevan, 1946.

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Credit: The Heilan Coo

The inferno at Grenfell Tower has claimed many lives (as I write, the official estimate for people dead or missing and presumed dead is 58.), has likely wiped out entire families and will have irrevocably changed an entire community forever.

It’s still too early to be fully deconstructing the causes and blames of this disaster but a few things have become widely reported and will likely play into the debate in the months and years to come.

However the blaze started (early reports suggest a power surge igniting a fridge on the 4th floor) it appears that the flames spread rapidly up the insulating cladding on the outside of the building, engulfing the entire structure in minutes and trapping many inside.

It has also emerged that the cladding involved was the cheaper of two options provided by the supplier and of a construction which would be illegal in several countries including the US and Germany. The fire resistant version of the cladding appears to have cost fractionally more – just £2 per square metre, or £5,000 for the entire block of flats. Further, it appears that at least part of the motivation for the choice of cladding was to improve the appearance of the flats for the benefit of nearby luxury high rises.

The Grenfell Action Group has been warning of a catalogue or failures of construction, maintenance and accountability for years. And the complete failure of leadership in the wake of the disaster, especially from PM May, has been appalling. This interview by MP David Lammy, who lost a friend in the blaze, does much to exemplify the sense of frustration and anger felt by a community which justifiably feels betrayed and it is no wonder at all that protests have occurred (so far peacefully).

Of course, the building contractors will all tell us that they are not to blame as they met all applicable regulations. And they’d almost certainly be correct. This is the nature of the relationship between capitalism and government regulations. It will always be the case that companies will meet regulations by the barest minimum that cost allows and will always lobby for those regulations to be decreased if the cost of lobbying is lower than the savings due to the regulation cut (for, in this case, politics can be reduced to just another form of investment).

I’ve been particularly appalled by one article in Bloomberg which takes on the extreme libertarian approach to this stating that all fire regulations should be scrapped because in the perfect world of the libertarian, any regulation which increases cost is unacceptable. Instead, the people who lived in the tower should have rationally weighed the risks of living in the tower with that cost and, if they wanted to, could have moved to some (presumably more expensive) tower nearby which DID include the safety features.

I shouldn’t need to fully dismantle this worldview. The residents of Grenfell did not have the choice of a hypothetical “safe” building next door into which they could move. Even if they did, humans simply are not the machine-like “rational actors” demanded of libertarianism nor do they always have the perfect information required to make such a choice (Could you identify a flammable cladding from a non-flammable one? If the libertarian landlord tells you, could you completely trust them? Could you tell if they were lying? Without any regulations, how would you hold them accountable if they were?)

I have written before, in less tragic terms, on the need for regulations to go well above and beyond the bare minimum. It will be essential if we wish to meet our targets to reduce energy consumption (which will be good for the environment and save a lot of people a lot of money in heating costs). I now believe it’s time to go much further than this. The private sector will always be an anchor against attempts to increase decent housing stock (especially for the poor) and to get the UK’s housing price inflation under control. It’s time for the government to start intervening and build social housing again.

Unconstrained by the needs to seek profit, the government can apply its own regulations, well above the “legal minimum” if need be, and can do some proper planning to ensure that it’s not just housing that’s being built (this has long been the failure of many projects in the past such as the high rises and the out-of-town blocks such as Easterhouse in Glasgow). We need to think about the amenities and the jobs and all the other functions of a town which enables communities to thrive. Common Weal has recently published some proposals on how local areas can control their own land and ensure that their specific needs are addressed on their terms. We can’t keep treating housing as a commodity for the rich, constantly pushing folk to “climb the property ladder”, treating those who can’t to the slums and the land-baggers and simply abandoning them. We can’t keep segregating people and reinforcing the class and wealth divides  and then blaming those on the bottom end for “just not striving hard enough“.

This isn’t to say that high-rises don’t have their place – endless suburban sprawls constantly bite into farmland and wild spaces and often fail to engender any sense of community at all, not to mention the health and climate effects caused by having to drive to reach anything other than your own house and the extra costs of delivering services to low density populations. Smart Cities, well designed with these factors in mind, may be a major factor towards a sustainable future (and I say this as someone who lives in a rural area).

And these cities need a lot of work to build. From brickies and plumbers, through planners and designers, past educators and mentors, to the computer experts who’ll get the smart systems going and keep them running, there is vast potential to employ a lot of people in this enterprise and to inject a huge amount economic activity into the country (in a far more productive manner than the zero-hours “gig” jobs that we’re being fed currently). If Austerity is to be ended, this could be one way to do it. And we know it works because the UK has been through exactly this before. An economy shattered by war from without (rather than Austerity from within) was reconstructed in the 1940’s and 1950’s and is still looked back on fondly as one of the UK’s golden ages. Here’s Nye Bevan talking in 1946 about his plans and how he got them started.

 

“That’s all great”, you say. “But how much will it cost and how do you pay for it?”

Government debt.

Did that put a shiver up your spine? Then you’ve been indoctrinated by the most dangerous ideas of the 21st century. The idea that government debt is a terrible thing.

We’re living in an age where the UK government can borrow on a 30 year bond for 1.7%. Inflation is currently 2.9%. There has never been a better time to invest as right now the debt is (in real terms) cheaper than free!

Applied to the housing market, this could be a major game changer. Not withstanding the ability to directly target areas which badly need investment (preferably by allowing these areas to borrow themselves through a National Investment Bank), the advantages in cost to the occupier are significant.

Right now, a £90,000, 25 year mortgage on a 4% compound rate would cost you about £475 per month and you’d pay back £142,500 over the term. A mortgage based on a government bond at our 1.7% (simple interest, rather than compound) would pay back over the 25 years for a little over £425 per month and, as a particular advantage to the renter, that monthly rate could be fixed for the entire mortgage period (it needn’t even be uprated for inflation as the bond isn’t). Try asking your bank for a mortgage rate fixed beyond five years. Try asking them to predict what the interest rate will be on year six.

BoE Interest Rate Predictions

(The Bank of England can’t do it, and they’re the ones who SET the rates!)

One the debt is paid off, it could be up to the government to decide whether the house remains as a social house and the occupier continues to pay rent (thus subsidising other housing), continues to live in their home rent free for the remainder of their occupation (thus preserving communities long term), or allows them to purchase the house (which would require the government to replace stock in a way that wasn’t done under Right-To-Buy)

And, of course, you can adjust the numbers as required to ensure that everyone can afford a house, built to far higher standards than the private sector will supply, without the need to make obscene levels of profits while doing so and in a location and surrounded by the services required to make that house a home embedded in a community built by and for all of us.

We didn’t need the Grenfell tragedy to have this conversation. People have been speaking about it for years now. The systemic problems in the UK’s housing industry have been apparent and have been either ignored or actively encouraged for too long. Maybe it’s time we started listening and reassessing.

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We Need To Talk About: A Financial Transaction Tax

“We bailed out the City 10 years ago when the crash came, we poured hundreds of billions of pounds into it. Since then £100bn has been given out in bonuses in the City. So we are asking for a small contribution…to fund our public services.” – John McDonnell MP

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Last night, Labour announced one of their keynote policies ahead of the 2017 General Election. A financial transaction tax on the City of London. Time for a blog to outline just what in the name of Jim it actually is and what it’s supposed to do.

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