My submission makes one major point about the UK government not comprehensively collecting and utilising financial data that is routinely produced by 10,000 or so public bodies in the UK, as well as other points around the availability of administrative data and the quality of spreadsheet design in communicating many statistics.
In special Insights In Focus episode for ICAEW, I and fellow panellists discuss the changes to tax architecture and design that may strengthen the UK’s national bargain as economic turbulence continues.
The national bargain – the broad agreement that taxation is a fair exchange for the provision of public services – has fluctuated over time. Most recently, polling by YouGov found the prevailing attitude among the British public is one of fiscal tightening. However, following unprecedented financial support during the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, the tax burden is set to continue rising until 2027/28.
That leaves the government with a difficult conundrum: how can it meet people’s expectations around fiscal policy while paying down its debt at a time of slow economic growth?
To explore the best use of tax architecture and design, host Bronwen Maddox is joined by Bill Dodwell, Tax Director at the Office of Tax Simplification; Helen Miller, Deputy Director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies; and Martin Wheatcroft, ICAEW adviser and Fellow.
Local government in England remains a complex patchwork despite a cut in the number of local authorities in England from 333 to 317 on 1 April 2023.
Our chart this week takes a look at the structure of local government in England following the abolition of three county councils and seventeen district councils to form four new unitary authorities on 1 April 2023. This reduces the total number of local authorities in England from 333 to 317, while there was no change in the number of regional authorities at 11.
Cumbria county council and its six district councils were abolished and their functions were transferred to two newly formed unitary authorities. Cumberland, with 274,000 local residents, absorbed the now defunct Allerdale, Carlisle and Copeland district councils. Westmorland and Furness, serving a population of 227,000, took over Eden, South Lakeland and Barrow-in-Furness.
Somerset county council and its four districts (Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West and Taunton, and South Somerset) were merged into a new Somerset unitary authority serving 573,000 local residents.
North Yorkshire county council and its seven districts (Craven, Hambleton, Harrogate, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough and Selby) were merged into a single North Yorkshire unitary council, responsible for a local population of 619,000.
As our chart illustrates, there is a complex patchwork quilt of regional and local authorities in England. Around 24.2m people, or 43% of the 56.5m population of England in mid-2021, live in areas with a regional level of government, while 18.6m (33%) people are served by a two-tier structure of county and district councils and 13.7m (24%) by single-tier unitary authorities.
Regional authorities comprise the Greater London Authority (with a population of 8.8m) and 10 combined authorities: West Midlands (2.9m), Greater Manchester (2.9m), West Yorkshire (2.3m), Liverpool City Region (1.4m), South Yorkshire (1.4m), North East (1.2m), West of England (0.9m), Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (0.9m), North of Tyne (0.8m) and Tees Valley (0.7m).
Regional and local public services in London are provided by the GLA and 32 London boroughs and the City of London, and by the relevant combined authority and seven metropolitan boroughs in the West Midlands ‘Greater Birmingham’ combined authority area; 10 in Greater Manchester; five in South Yorkshire ‘Sheffield City Region’; five in Liverpool City Region; and four in the West Yorkshire ‘Leeds City Region’. There are three metropolitan boroughs plus one unitary authority in the North East ‘Sunderland and County Durham’ combined authority area; three unitary authorities in West of England ‘Greater Bristol’; one county council, five district councils and one unitary authority in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; two metropolitan boroughs and one unitary authority in the North of Tyne ‘Newcastle and Northumberland’ combined authority area; and five unitary authorities in Tees Valley.
Local public services in two-tier areas without a combined authority above them comprise Kent county council (with 12 district councils), Essex (12), Hampshire (11), Lancashire (12), Surrey (11), Hertfordshire (10), Norfolk (7), West Sussex (7), Staffordshire (8), Nottinghamshire (7), Devon (8), Derbyshire (8), Lincolnshire (7), Suffolk (5), Oxfordshire (5), Leicestershire (7), Gloucestershire (6), Worcestershire (6), Warwickshire (5) and East Sussex (5). Many of these county councils do not cover the whole of their counties, with unitary authorities such as Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock carved out of Essex, Derby carved out of Derbyshire, and Plymouth and Torbay carved out of Devon, for example.
There are 51 unitary authorities plus the Isles of Scilly outside of combined authority areas, responsible for providing local services that traditionally county councils are responsible for, such as education, transport, fire and public safety, social care, libraries, waste management, and trading standards, as well as services typically provided by district councils such as rubbish collection, recycling, social housing, planning approvals and collecting council tax and business rates.
North Yorkshire and Somerset are now the largest local authorities outside of metropolitan areas with populations of 619,000 and 573,000, followed by Cornwall (572,000), Buckinghamshire (555,000) and Wiltshire (513,000). Excluding these five authorities and tiny Rutland (41,000), the average population size served by unitary authorities outside of combined authority areas is 240,000.
Overall the 317 local authorities in England comprise 32 London boroughs, the City of London, 36 metropolitan boroughs, 21 county and 164 district councils, 62 unitary authorities and the Isle of Scilly. This contrasts with the simpler one-tier approach of 32 local councils in Scotland, 16 in Wales and 11 in Northern Ireland.
The lack of a standard model for local government and an incomplete regional tier is a big challenge for the national government, unlike similar countries where the national government deals with a much smaller number of states, provinces or regional administrations and lets them deal with their localities. Trying to work with 11 regional authorities and 317 local authorities in a mixture of region + one-tier, region + two-tier, no region + one-tier, and no region + two-tier structures is difficult in practice, not helped by a very centralised approach that requires Whitehall to be involved very closely in what regional and local authorities are doing, and a lack of fiscal devolution that means local authorities are dependent on central funding and national government approvals for many of their activities.
A radical proposal to abolish district councils completely and move to a one-tier system of unitary authorities and boroughs, potentially with full regional coverage, was rumoured to be imminent when Boris Johnson was prime minister. Instead, the government has continued with its more glacial approach of providing financial and other encouragement to local authorities willing to form regional combined authorities with elected mayors, and to replace two-tier county and district councils with unitary authorities where some consensus can be reached, as in Cumbria, Somerset and North Yorkshire this year.
While an unwieldy structure is not the main problem facing local government in England, it doesn’t make it easy for any government wanting to level up opportunity across the country to deliver, nor to find efficiency savings in central government departments that have to deal with that structure.
Even when using the now commonly accepted ‘American’ meaning of the word, a billion is a seriously big number. At a thousand million, or 1,000,000,000 (that’s nine zeroes) it is decidedly large.
A pound may not be worth so much these days, but a billion of them? A very large sum of money in any language.
Indeed, for almost everyone apart from those tiny number of people who have that sort of wealth already, the value of a billion pounds is difficult to imagine. The interest in one year alone would be many times the amount most of us might hope to earn in our entire lifetime. To be able to afford thousands of homes, when many struggle to even buy one. Lots of money. Loads.
At the same time, a billion pounds is not a lot of money.
You hear about them on the news all the time. Our government plans to spend 802 of them this year and so one billion is small change, just 0.12% of a year’s spending. So small that the government could decide to spend an extra billion pounds and it might not even show up in the numbers due to rounding.
Of course, the reason for this duality is simple; for a country with tens of millions of inhabitants, even very small amounts for each individual add up to a lot of money.
Thus £1 billion is just £15.10 per person when spread over the 66.1 million people that live in the UK. On a monthly basis, that’s only £1.26 for each of us.
Enough to buy a high street coffee every other month. Not very much at all.
You can start to understand why there are so many of these billions around. A £4 billion cut in spending; that would save each of us about £5 a month. That extra £2 billion on housing? That’s going to cost us an additional £2.50.
So, when you hear that the government intends to spend an extra billion pounds a year on something or other to make our lives better, just remember that it is not a big amount of money at all.
Even so, it is also important to realise something too.
In a letter to the Guardian, Martin Wheatcroft comments on Professor Richard Murphy’s suggestion that ‘People’s QE’ can be used to finance government spending at no cost.
Professor Richard Murphy (Letters, 27 September) is mistaken when he claims that “QE debt carries no interest cost” and that we can ignore capital markets by using “People’s QE” to finance public spending cost-free. As a chartered accountant, he should know better. No debit exists without a credit, and the purchase of bonds by the Bank of England results in one form of public debt (government securities) being replaced by another (Bank of England deposits). Interest is payable on these deposits at the Bank of England base rate – currently 0.25%. This is not zero.
Quantitative easing swaps the benefit of locking-in the interest rate payable on long-term fixed-rate government securities for variable interest charges. The good news is that the £435bn of QE debt that we have today has been swapped into deposits paying 0.25%, costing the exchequer just £1bn in interest each year on this element of the national debt. However, the base rate could change very quickly depending on economic conditions and the decisions of the Monetary Policy Committee. An increase to 2% – historically still quite low – would cost an extra £8bn a year in interest, while at 5% – the rate in 2006 before the financial crisis – the annual interest cost would be £21bn higher than it is now.
Borrowing to finance public spending can be a sensible policy in the right circumstances, especially if directed at infrastructure and other investments that generate economic growth. But, politicians considering People’s QE as a policy choice should understand that there is no such thing as free finance, even for governments. As it turns out, even printing money costs money.
Author of Simply UK Government Finances 2017-18
The Autumn Statement is tomorrow, and the press is full of speculation that our new Chancellor Philip Hammond will not only hold to previously announced cuts in the corporation tax rate, but will announce a further reduction, despite an expected hit to the public finances from lower economic growth.
A reduction from the current rate of 20% is planned for this April when it is due to come down to 19%, with a further cut to 17% in April 2020. As a consequence it is likely that any new announcement will be in the form of a commitment to reduce the rate to 15% at some point in the next decade.
This definitely sounds attractive – the UK should be an even more rewarding place to base your business than higher tax jurisdictions, such as Germany with its 30%-33% rates, or the US with its combined federal and state tax rates in the order of 40% (albeit Donald Trump is proposing to reduce federal taxes so that the combined rate would come down to around 20%). The UK will perhaps be in touching distance of Ireland with its comparatively low 12.5% rate.
However, a 5% cut in the corporate tax rate is going to cost a lot of money – at least £10 billion a year. Will we really make up for this through increased economy activity and encouraging businesses to invest in the UK?
Perhaps it will. A lower tax regime should encourage businesses to invest in the UK, shouldn’t it? And more investment should mean more jobs, more spending in the UK and and more profits, each generating taxes to offset the cost of the lower corporation tax rate.
But, and there is a but. This change will provide an incentive for international businesses to shift spending out of the UK and into higher tax jurisdictions.
This may sound counterintuitive, but remember that most investment and spending in the UK economy comes from businesses already operating in the UK and internationally. And for them the equation is a little different.
For example, take a business already operating in both the UK and Germany, paying taxes on its profits in each jurisdiction. The lower corporation tax rate will provide an incentive to increase profits in the UK and to decrease them in Germany.
The orthodox answer is to do what the government would like – to prioritise investment in the UK over Germany. But in reality, there is a much easier way to take advantage of this tax differential and that is to do the opposite – to increase spending in Germany and reduce spending in the UK.
After all, this would provide a 30% or so tax deduction on the additional German costs, at the cost of 15% on the higher profits it would generate in the UK – a 15% saving for each pound (or euro) of spending shifted over to Germany.
Of course, life is a bit more complicated than this simple example. In theory the international tax system of “transfer pricing” should offset this sort of cost shifting. But in reality, outside of a straightforward manufacturing or product business, it probably wouldn’t. Especially as this would not necessarily be a clearly linked event, perhaps not even a conscious decision. It would just make financial sense to prioritise cost cutting in the UK over cost cutting in Germany.
There are many arguments for lowering the corporation tax from its current level of 20%; not all of them about the effect on the public finances and on economic activity. Indeed, in years to come, a 20% rate may seem very high, just like the 52% rate that applied in the 1970s seems extremely high to us today. Arguably those historic rate reductions have generated positive returns to the economy, certainly in making the UK an attractive place to do business.
But, I do wonder. Are we getting to the point where cutting the rates below 20% will be effective at stimulating the economy or is this a case of diminishing returns?
During the current EU debate a frequent complaint from the Leave side is about the pressure that immigrants put on public services, while the Remain side reply with economic studies indicating that immigrants pay more in taxes than they take out.
Both sides have a point – there are definitely more people living in the UK as a result of migration and so there should in theory be a greater demand on public services. However, it is also true that new migrants are typically young, in good health and generally here to work, likely to be putting more into the system than they take out.
But can it be as simple as just that? We are also regularly informed that the biggest pressures on public services are coming from an increasingly older population, so which is it: immigration or growing older?
I thought I would start by looking at what has happened over the last twenty years, when the population has grown by seven million people, from 58 million people living in the UK in 1995 to 65 million in 2015.
Of that increase, four million is due to net migration and three million from natural changes. So there you have it, migration is more than half the increase.
But then I looked at how the increase splits between older and younger people, i.e. those older or younger than 40? It turns out that over the last twenty years, the number of people aged over 40 has increased by six million, while the number of people under 40 has increased by only one million.
And how much of that six million increase in the over 40s is down to migration? Amazingly, I discovered that the answer is (approximately) zero. 17 million people reached the age of 40 over that time, much more than the just over 11 million people who died, a net increase of six million due to natural changes.
Now, just to be clear, there has of course been immigration amongst the over 40s. But, the numbers suggest that they have either been here for 20 years or more or, if they arrived more recently, that there has been equal and offsetting emigration by Brits over 40 who have left the country to work or retire abroad. For the over 40s, net migration has been effectively nil over the last couple of decades.
But of course now I was puzzled. Looking at the overall population it appears that more than half the growth is due to migration, but if I just looked at older people of 40 and over, I discover that 6 million of the increase out of 7 million (85%) comes from those older people, with zero migration involved.
This becomes clearer when we look at the younger age group. This has only increased by 1 million people from 32 million to 33 million, an increase of just 3% over the two decades, compared with the 12% increase in the total population.
Where has all the migration gone you ask? Well, it hasn’t gone; there definitely has been a net 4 million increase in the number of people aged under 40 as a consequence of migration. But, this has been mostly offset by a reduction of three million in the number of younger people through natural changes.
Looked at in this way, it appears that three million migrants have replaced younger workers in the economy, with only one million going towards the overall increase in the total population.
A contrasting picture, as shown in this handy chart:
So what is the answer? Is the increased pressure on public services due to the four million migrants arriving here over the last 20 years net of departures. Or is it down to the 6 million extra older people, which would have happened anyway even if there hadn’t been any immigration?
Yes, today is the day that the Whole of Government Accounts for 2014-15 have been published. And, although it may be easy to criticise the 14 months it has taken since the end of the financial year to publish them, their publication is further evidence of the (quiet) revolution going on in the staid world of government accounting.
These accounts are the sixth set of financial statements published by the Government in this format, using International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), in line with the commercial accounting rules applied to listed companies and many other organisations.
Fourteen months is actually still an improvement over the 15 months it took two years ago when the 2012-13 financial statements were published, but it is a reversal from the twelve months it took last year and is disappointing given the Government’s ambition to reduce the time taken to nine months this time around.
The primary cause of the delays stems from problems in the preparation of the accounts for one of the Government’s major ‘subsidiaries’, namely the Department for Education. It has struggled to cope with the transfer of thousands of local authority schools from to academy chains under the control of central government, causing a knock-on impact on the overall financial reporting programme.
Despite that there have been improvements, with Network Rail now incorporated and further improvements in the quality of the accounts. And, perhaps just as importantly, the Government has started to realise that it needs to do a lot more if it is cope with the financial implications of devolution.
Unfortunately, there has been a small step backward in terms of the commentary provided on the financial statements. It has been streamlined (something I generally welcome as a matter of principle), but in doing so I think the commentary has lost some of the analysis that would be expected in a listed company’s annual report and so makes it a slightly less useful document than it could be. However, I am sufficiently realistic to accept that there is limited usefulness in a detailed comprehensive financial commentary relating to a period that ended over a year ago.
That demonstrates the reason why it is important for the dedicated team at the Treasury working on the WGA to work with departments such as Education in order to return to the path of more timely reporting. It will only when the Whole of Government Accounts are published within a reasonable time after the end of the financial year that they will be able to come into their own as a vehicle for holding the Government to account for the management of the nation’s finances and to support more effective decision making.
Now to actually read them… mmm… I think the £1.5 trillion in pension liabilities might be worthy of a little further follow up….
One of the challenges in getting to grips with the public finances is that government accounting can be just a little bit weird. Without the strictures of double entry bookkeeping and balance sheets that (well) balance, it can often appear mysterious.
For example, take the Curious Incident of the Surplus in the Night-Time (or 2019/20 to be more specific).
A £10 billion surplus, according to the official forecasts published published just three weeks ago. If achieved, the Chancellor will have met his objective of balancing income with expenditure for the first time in decades. We will finally be in a position to start paying down some of the national debt, instead of just ‘inflating it away’ as a proportion of GDP.
But, hang on a second. Curiously, the Treasury is actually forecasting in the Budget that we will be £10 billion worse off in 2019/20, not £10 billion better off, with the national debt expected to increase from £1,715 billion to £1,725 billion over the year to 31 March 2020.
Even stranger, there is a forecast for £9 billion in asset sales, the proceeds of which we are told are used to pay off debt. So, a £10 billion increase in public sector net debt instead of the £19 billion reduction in debt that we might expect to see instead.
The Curious Incident of a Surplus in 2019/20. One that doesn’t result in a positive improvement in the Government’s financial position.