Monday, October 12, 2009

Fire Sale

How much am I bid for a licence to farm Dartford?

The headline is clear enough, and simply repeats what we were told back in the Budget: from 2010-11 onwards Brown is planning to sell a further £16bn of assets, including £3bn in the first year.

But as always, the details are rather less clear. Indeed, as befits a fire sale, the whole thing is shrouded in dense smoke.

All we've been told is that "the Tote, the Dartford Crossing, the Channel Tunnel rail link, and the Student Loan book... are estimated to raise £3 billion". On top of that, "the Government’s share in Urenco, which operates uranium enrichment plants in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, is also up for auction", but we have no idea what that might be worth.

Also in the dark are the local authorities, the sale of whose playing fields and libraries is supposedly going to raise no less than £11bn of the total £16bn. According to the Local Government Association, Gordo's announcement this morning was the first they'd even heard of the plan. Indeed, there's a real questionmark over whether central government actually has the power to order this. Half-baked doesn't really cover it.

Even on the sale items we have been told about, there's huge uncertainty.

For example, we know the government failed to sell the Tote for a sensible price before the Crash, and the betting now is they will have to settle for less than half the £400m previously sought.

On the other hand, the Dartford Crossing could raise a packet. It's a monopoly crossing on Britain's busiest motorway, and there's a straight trade-off between sale price and toll rates. The right toll regime could make this a nice little earner.

How's that going to be managed? And why stop at Dartford? Why not sell other stretches of busy motorway, with an accompanying right to toll?

It's a very similar deal to the old Roman system of tax farming - the government sells a local tax collecting concession to a private individual, and it's then up to that individual to milk the punters for as much as he can get, short of starving them to death or sparking a rebellion.

And when you think about it, why stop at motorways? Why not auction off the right to collect vehicle excise duty? Or indeed, the telly tax (we could bundle in the BBC)?

The fact is that the government flogging off income generating assets purely to raise money is A Very Bad Idea:

  1. The Simple Shopper is hopeless at driving a good deal - eg the disastrous Brown Bottom gold sales, and the horrifically bungled sale of Qinetiq
  2. Borrowing money via the gilts market is always cheaper (well, it is unless HMG gets downrated to CCC)

Sure, there are good reasons to flog off government assets - eg company privatisations generally raise efficiency. But selling the right to collect tolls, or the right to collect student loan repayments is pure sleight of fiscal hand.

These asset sales may reduce public sector borrowing as officially measured, but where they are simply sacrificing future income for cash today, we'd be better off borrowing via the gilts market. We do not need yet more Enron accounting and yet more rip-offs.

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