Where’s the magic money tree, then?

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness.
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.

Well that all sounded rather splendid. Lots and lots of lovely Government lolly heading the way of the construction industry to rebuild the economy post-pandemic. Gazillions of pennies being spent to relieve the economic discomfort of a nation caught short by Covid-19.

Many times in the past has Boris Johnson tried to channel his great hero Winston Churchill; yesterday he aimed to do the same with Winston’s war-time ally Franklin D Roosevelt. “It sounds positively Rooseveltian. It sounds like a New Deal. All I can say is that if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand. A government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people at a time of crisis,” he told the selected audience at a college of further education in the West Midlands. The location was carefully planned. Dudley, to be precise, one of those constituencies that changed its hue from red to blue in December, whose votes the Tories have borrowed and whose trust will need to be repaid, as Johnson himself said in his victory speech after the General Election.

“Too many parts of this country have felt left behind, neglected, unloved, as though someone had taken a strategic decision that their fate did not matter as much as the metropolis,” he said yesterday, echoing parts of that December 13 speech – the ‘first let’s get breakfast done’ one.

So far so good, then. The construction industry has long said that the best way to be build the economy is by investing in construction. In fact, every £1 spent on construction creates £2.92 of value to the UK economy, according to the CBI. The £5bn of capital projects, the £1bn spending on schools, the £900m for a range of ‘shovel ready’ projects, the £1.5bn this year for hospitals, the £100m on road repairs. It all sounds marvellous.

However. There’s always, always, a however. The devil will be in the detail and, as we’ve seen, thus far, Johnson is superb at the rhetoric, at the tub-thumping, at the campaigning. The detail, the dotting and crossing of Is and Ts, not so good. Planning reforms to speed up the process of getting housing built: good. Planning reforms that allow developers to run rough-shod over the needs and requirements of local communities: not good.

School spending: good. Insufficient spending in the wrong areas: not good. Plus, that £1bn spending on new schools sounds great. Fantastic. Amazing. Until you do the maths. For a start, it’s over 10 years and it’s way short of the £7bn that the National Audit office reckons is needed just to bring schools up to an acceptable standard in the modern world. It’s also way short of the £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme, the most ambitious educational investment since the post-war building boom and which was unceremoniously dumped by Michael Gove when he was coalition Education Secretary. There was a lot wrong with the BSF programme, a lot. It was over-bureaucratic, cumbersome and in many cases not value for money. That said, it recognised the importance of proper investment in education and the fabric of education and Gove has since admitted that scrapping it was one of his worst mistakes.

Yesterday’s announcements were welcome because no-one wants to go back to the days of the post financial crash austerity drive. Even though we know, deep down that the investment in the furlough scheme and all the rest of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s busines help schemes have to be repaid sometime, somehow and by someone.

This is not the first time that a Tory Prime Minster and a Chancellor have surprised the political world with the depth of their pockets and the size of their largesse. Whilst Boris may be quite happy to think he is emulating Churchill or Roosevelt; he probably has more in common with another flaxen haired Premier than he realises. Edward Heath’s 1970 Budget, delivered by Keith Joseph, was unprecedented in its spending – not something many would associate with a Tory Party – and came after years of austerity promoted by a Labour Government. But channelling Edward Heath isn’t quite the image Boris is aiming for.


About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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