A Cold House: post-Brexit Northern Ireland

The biggest, most significant practical consequence of Brexit for Ireland has not really been talked about to date. That is, that for the first time, the London government will not be in a position to continue to underwrite the Northern Ireland economy. Northern Ireland is headed for a massive economic shock.

It works like this. Northern Ireland is deeply dependent on fiscal transfers (essentially payments of money) from the UK, in particular the financial service driven economies of the British south-east. There is a net transfer of £10 billion per year (£200 million per week) from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland. NI has the highest public expenditure to person in the UK, and is highly dependent on public sector employment, much more than any other UK region. The Guardian put it in quite a stark graph:

The UK economy is in decline as a result of Brexit. Growth is slow and debt is high. How bad it gets will depend on how Brexit hits. Some say there is a full-on recession coming.

This will hit tax revenues in the UK. Getting more particular,  the IMF is talking about a major reduction in sales of financial services from the UK to the European Union. Financial services alone is said to account for 11 percent of UK government tax receipts. The loss of revenues to the City will be in the tens of billions of euros.  And financial services is clearly not the only sector that will be effected. Jaguar is moving operations from the UK to Slovakia, for example.

Even a few percentage points reduction in the UK tax take will have massive knock-on consequences for Northern Ireland.

London and Great Britain are going to face big economic and social problems of their own. Even the Brexit optimists agree there will be a period of upheaval. Britain is already in a major austerity program. It can’t take much more without severe political and social consequences. Northern Ireland will not be a priority if there is widespread disaffection (and maybe even riots) on the mainland.

As UK tax receipts fall, it is hard to see the axe not falling on Northern Ireland expenditure. If Northern Ireland’s subsidy per person is cut back so that it was in line with where the next biggest beneficiary is today (Wales) that would be a 20 percent cut, or a £40 million a week reduction to welfare, public employment and services like education and health. That would be a massive impact, far bigger than any benefits the DUP has gotten from its supply-and-confidence arrangement with the Conservative government.

Could Northern Ireland’s fragile political, economic and social framework really bear such a shock? Could it bear it in tandem with a cut in cross-border trade? What will all these unemployed Irish passport holders do, or where will they go? The impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland (and by extension Ireland) will be far more all-pervading than changes at the border.

Brexit leverage

The UK government is finding that it has very little leverage in negotiations with the EU over Brexit. What was Her Majesty’s Government’s plan, if there ever was one?

In retrospect, I think Teresa May and her cabinet were hoping that Ireland would be their leverage. Europe would accept a ‘back door’ for Britain into the Single Market in order to avoid startling the Northern Ireland horses.

This could never really work, for reasons that basically have nothing to do with the political situation in Ireland. European agricultural lobbies could never allow allow such a gaping hole in the border of the single market. And Ireland is just not anything like an important enough issue in the EU, population and votes-wise.

Having the DUP supporting Teresa May’s government made this ill-conceived idea completely impossible. The UK government was no longer a neutral actor, trying to get the best outcome for Northern Ireland. It now had a clearly partisan mission. This has made it impossible for the UK to blame the EU for the problems Brexit is causing in Ireland. The EU could now place the blame firmly at the feet of the British.

Diplomats: annoying but cheap.

People have always had high expectations of America for sure. And there is jealousy too. A lot of those expectations arise from the very good work the State Department has done around the world. It is a great pity to see that Tillerson plans to largely dismantle it. Diplomats are very annoying to politicians with their cosmopolitan lifestyles and expense accounts but they are cheap and effective compared to military action.

The forty-eight percent

The forty-eight percent in the UK have sufficient common cause that they could galvanize behind one political party in the forthcoming election. If that were to happen, the first-past-the-post system would not be kind to the two major parties.

Brits who opposed Brexit, who are reticent about it, or want a ‘soft’ brexit are now being asked to galvanise around a national platform. Their demand that the next government gets and takes the best deal for Britain is very attractive, and very hard to argue with.

Brexit is a story of disaffection. 52 percent of British voters are fundamentally unhappy with their lives or how they are governed. There are important reasons why this is the case.

But for now, these disaffected people are the people the government is depending on for support. This is obviously new territory for the Tory party. It is more familiar territory for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, but he has never had to compete with the Tories for these votes. I think this will get very scrappy. The traditional parties will show a very dark side of themselves. And can you really build a national consensus on the basis of disaffection alone?

And make no mistake, this is an election about Brexit and disaffection. There is no other issue on the table. Theresa May has said as much. It doesn’t really matter who the next prime minister is. What matters is what Britain’s new relationship with Europe will be, and how it will bring its own people in from the cold.

We can’t wait any longer: get homebuilding going in Ireland

Things are pretty bad. Two public servants are moving to Abu Dhabi, so they can afford to buy a home in Dublin. We spend tens of thousands of euros to educate and train people, then they have to go to a tax haven to be able to afford to even live in our country.

We have to provide housing, and quite a lot of it, and fast. We are not building anywhere near enough. The basic problem we face is that when all costs are taken into account, new homes are too expensive to provide without government support. It is cheaper to buy a house (even at high current prices) than to build a house. There are a number of reasons for this and we need to address them for sure.

But we also need to get homes built, starting now. We need to be thinking in terms of hundreds of thousands of new homes over the next few years.

On the sidelines, there is an ideological war going on about house-building. Should the houses be built by the private sector, or by the state? The problem is that nobody at all is building houses at the moment at any scale. It is unaffordable for everybody.

There is one good thing however: the country is awash with young people ready and willing to buy a house, and with a strong economy, many of them are creditworthy and have deposits ready.

Here is what I would do:

Firstly, a straight incentive – €15,000 for every bedroom in a new build completed in accordance with building regulations and occupied by 31 December 2019 in the case of a house and 31 December 2020 in the case of an apartment. (There would also have to be conditions to avoid subsidising houses already underway). The figure would go up to €20,000 where more than 100 units are provided on the same site.

Why €15,000? Well, because for a three-bed semi, that’s enough to cover the shortfall between the price of an existing house and a new house in Dublin. The cost overall for 25,000 homes would be over a billion euros, sure, but all of that would be recovered through VAT and PAYE from the increased economic activity.

Every year after 2019, the amount of the incentive could be reduced if it is no longer required.

Secondly a finance structure is needed. Prospective home purchasers should be encouraged to put down a deposit, now, on their future home. Rather than putting the deposit with the builder, they should place it with a government scheme which would provide a guarantee for the prospective purchaser that their deposit was safe. The government could then loan the value of the deposit to the developer, secured on the land.

The government would also guarantee to purchase the property if the original purchaser ‘fell through’ and didn’t go ahead with the purchase, and if a replacement purchaser couldn’t be found. If it did exercise this option, the government would get a small discount (say 7.5 percent).

But if the economy keeps storming on, that is unlikely to happen. And even if the economy weakens and the government has to buy the houses, the country is still going to need these new homes for the long-term. These will be modern, high-quality houses. The government can rent them for the short term, and rent them later on.

Now the builder has a rock-solid, guaranteed purchaser, rain, hail or shine. With this guarantee, the builder can go to the bank and borrow the money they need to actually build the complex.

This scheme is really designed with private housing built by private developers in mind. But it can work for local authorities too. They can use this funding mechanism to build social housing, or they can use it to build houses for resale.

It can also potentially be used by people who want to buy property to let it, though the structure would need to be tailored to avoid abuse.

Is this the full solution? No. We also need to address the problem of land costs. And to do that, we may ultimately need to replan our transport networks to open up new land. We may need more flexibility in the planning laws. But it provides for immediate action and will mobilise the talent and capital we have available already.

Combined with a plan to utilise vacant housing in the most sought after areas of the country, and perhaps some form of site value tax to incentivise use of vacant or underused land, this would put us well on the way to building hundreds of thousands of homes for our growing population.

Where soft power comes from.

The question came up in a discussion with RP Eddy on Facebook, why does Donald Trump, a master of brand and marketing if there ever was one, is so against building the international brand of the US, through ‘soft power’ of diplomacy and international relations.

The answer, I think, is that Donald Trump believes that America’s ‘soft power’ (its influence and ability to get things done where others can’t) derives from its latent ‘hard power’ (the fact that America keeps a powerful military on alert, worldwide). In fact, this is not true, and the reason for America’s influence is that the US is basically trustworthy in its international dealings and follows through on things it says it will do (it is far from completely trustworthy, but maybe 60 or 70 percent of the time, it carries through which is still a lot better than the international batting average. This is not because of moral superiority, by the way, but that the US has many resources to draw on, and considers its options and its actions quite carefully.)

If Trump, as president, believes American soft power mainly derives from military power, then as a new president, he has to demonstrate that power somewhere to prove that he is ready to use it.

Emotion Trumps (sometimes)

RP Eddy pointed me at this article about emotional intelligence not always being a good thing. It made me think about Donald Trump. The interesting thing about America’s forty-fifth president is that he has proven to have an awareness of and insight into the emotional life of American voters that others (certainly not the Clinton campaign) simply do not possess.

But his big weakness is also that he is so emotionally sensitive. Look at his demeanour at the press event with Angela Merkel. Did the usually sober Frau Dr Merkel hide in a cupboard and shout ‘boo’ at him, or make ‘comrade’ jokes? Something had deeply upset him. The same week, Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister called out Trump’s immigration policies to his face (though in a nice friendly way) and he wasn’t fazed at all.

This week, the Telegraph reports that “According to US officials Mr Trump acted from his gut after seeing horrific pictures of child victims in Idlib.” And further: “The signal was unmistakable – if he finds something unacceptable, anywhere in the world, he will not hesitate to use force.”

No one doubts the horrors in Syria. But if you are putting America First, and American interests are not directly at stake, then why get involved? It is an emotional decision, not a rational one. The signs are that the consequences have not really been thought through.

Buns, parking and the modern acute hospital

I feel for the people who run hospitals. Hospitals are mainly judged by trifling aspects of their outward presentation rather than how fundamentally good they are as hospitals. In a recent Facebook discussion I witnessed, participants got very angry about the cost of a bun in the cafe. The issue of car parking also caused consternation. Continue reading