In mid-July the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), the independent forecaster of the economy and public finances, published its annual Fiscal Sustainability report. The purpose is to identify whether and when changes in government policy may be necessary to move the public finances from an unsustainable to a sustainable path. The report paints a bleak picture for the UK’s economic recovery without further Government intervention and highlights spending related to population ageing as the key driver of this bleak economic future.
According to the OBR, in order to compensate for the demographic pressures and keep the national debt in 2060-61 at its pre-crisis level of 40% of GDP, another £17bn of savings will have to be found in 2017/18. This assumes that it is imperative to return to pre-crisis levels of debt to GDP. While this long-term aspiration is desirable there is much dispute within economic circles about whether this needs to happen quite so quickly.
It also suggests that maintaining benefits to which people are currently entitled will create a £65bn hole in the budget deficit between 2016/17 and 2061/62 and that health spending will need to increase from 6.8 per cent of GDP in 2016-17 to 9.1 per cent of GDP in 2061-62.
At first glance the figures look worrying and clearly difficult decisions lie ahead. Highlighting the need for these decisions is important – focusing the blame on ageing is unhelpful.
When you look at the detail in the report the impact of ageing is not as doomsday as the OBR make out.