Who owns London’s revenues?

Adam Leaver of Manchester Business School, University of Manchester picks up a point made by Evan Davis in replying to an earlier blog Size matters? London – the subsidy junky. Evan asked the following question about whether London was a ‘subsidy junkie’:

“Don’t you have to take revenues earned by each region into account too? To reduce it to basics, it could be that London is more productive and as a consequence is more tax-generating and more expensive. It thus needs extra public spending. That is not a subsidy if London more than raises the money to pay for it”.

Putting to one side the dubious point that more productive regions are necessarily more expensive, two issues arise immediately out of this intervention. First, Evan raises a question about measurement: how do we measure regional cross subsidy when one region is so successful and requires higher levels of public service investment to sustain its success? Second, implicitly, he raises a question about ‘ownership’ of those revenues – that higher levels of expenditure are not a cross subsidy if that region is simply spending its own money.

The issue of cross subsidy is a difficult one to measure. On a per capita measure, it is certainly the case that Londoners receive higher levels of public expenditure than individuals elsewhere in the country. As my colleagues argued, identifiable expenditure on services per capita is higher in London than any other English region, though figures for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are higher. On transport infrastructure expenditure, the per capita figures are: south-west £215, north-east £246, Yorkshire and Humberside £303, north-west £839, London £4895. The differences are astronomic. However, it is also true that London has historically generated a greater proportion of gross value added growth, and – as figure 1 shows – this has increased significantly post- crisis. Since 2007, London and the South East account for close to a half of the UK’s total GVA growth.

In some ways these figures support Evan’s query. Even if we consider the possibility that tax efficient schemes are more active in London than elsewhere, it is frankly implausible that London doesn’t also generate a significantly greater share of the UK’s total tax take. But perhaps that is the wrong way of looking at the issue of cross subsidy because it only takes into consideration ex post distributions. By thinking about ex ante cross subsidies – that is distributions, guarantees, bailouts and other subsidies that underpin activity – a different picture emerges.

To take one example: financial services. The cost of the UK bank bailouts, are estimated at between £289 billion to £1,183 billion by the IMF. Similarly the presence of a state bailout guarantee, reduces banks credit risk and allows them to borrow more cheaply. In 2009 alone it was estimated that this amounted to a funding cost reduction of more than £100 billion for 13 banks in the UK. With that level of subsidy, of course we might expect those industries to become world leaders. Of course we might then expect an influx of global talent as those subsidies allow us to pay the best wages and bonuses. We might expect foreign direct investment as global companies source here to access that talent. We might expect allied industries to spring up – lawyers, accountants, service firms, boutique establishments. We might then expect agglomeration economy dynamics to emerge as demand multipliers kick in. Those industries would make a lot of money, and would pay a lot of tax – as would their employees. But that is a state subsidy, applied to London and not to activities prevalent elsewhere in the country. Further, because those activities suck in talent from the regions (engineers, mathematicians, physicists and other scientists) they undermine the broad competences of non-metropolitan areas. This implies less palatable conclusions to those of Mind The Gap because gains are zero sum: to replicate the success of London, regions must wrestle power and state subsidy from it.

Let’s take another example: PFI. The problem with ‘identifiable expenditures’ as reported by the Treasury is that it does not capture the leakage of revenues out of the regions. If a hospital is built in Manchester, how much money remains in Manchester? With the example of St Marys – not a lot. The shareholders on the St Marys hospital PFI were Bovis Lend Lease (50%) (HQ Kent); HSBC (25%) (HQ London) and Sodexho (25%) (HQ London). The contractors were Bovis (Design & Build) (HQ Kent), RKW (HQ Dusseldorf, Germany), WR Adams (HQ Georgia, US but a Bovis subsidiary), Building Design Partnership (HQ Manchester), Anshen Dyer (HQ Calif/London). The private sector advisors were Clifford Chance (HQ London), Faithful & Gould (HQ London) and Marsh (HQ London). Financing involved the European Investment Bank; Deutsche Bank and the Royal Bank of Canada. With these foreign firms it is also the case that much of the money flows back to their London offices. So this is state money supporting London based business and employment even when investment is in the regions. Infrastructure investment of this kind could be organised differently to the benefit of the regions, but this model has the effect of operating like a quasi-regional policy for London and the South East.

Finally, on the question of ownership: are these London’s revenues? That is a tricky question because it raises all kinds of technical questions about how we account for these things and moral questions about proprietorial claims in a national economy. It is perhaps worth noting that banking profits rest on the principle of eking out a thin film of profit on a teetering tower of assets and liabilities. When those assets values rise, the booked profits are assumed to be London’s and are distributed accordingly via the bonus system and comp ratio; when they fall and banks require a bailout, the accumulated losses are assumed to be national. To put this in the parlance of finance, this is a regional moral hazard: the metropolitanisation of gains and the nationalisation of losses.

The issue of what the regions can learn from London deserves deeper thought. UK second cities are small and growing more slowly than London. In ratio terms, the UK’s largest 2nd tier city generates around 10% of the output of London – the second highest capital to 2nd tier city output inequality within the EU. In terms of the regional concentration of GDP creation, that means we have more in common with a Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania or Greece than a Germany, Netherlands or Sweden. It is just not credible to continuously laud London as an exemplar from which others might learn, without recognising the role of these ex ante state subsidies from which London benefits disproportionately and which reinforce regional inequalities.

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