As Johnson squirms, his party must remember the roots of Conservatives values

Boris Johnson’s government now has a penchant for embracing policies which, to many, have a distinctively non-conservative feel. High taxes, a big state. What’s next?

An old idea which is currently being given new legs is that of a universal basic income (UBI).

The basic concept is that all citizens of a country receive from the government a fixed amount of money each month.  It is not means tested, so rich and poor alike get the cash.  

UBI is attracting support from across the political spectrum. Stupendously wealthy libertarians such as Elon Musk, for example, favour the idea because of what they see as the threat to employment levels in the coming wave of automation.

A serious contribution to the discussion has recently been made by five long-established anti-poverty campaigners under the auspices of the think tank Compass. A longer version will be published by the Royal Society of Arts, now headed by Andy Haldane, former chief economist of the Bank of England, in the autumn.

They describe three potential levels of the UBI – modest, intermediate, and full. The amounts vary on age, marital status, and dependent children. For a simple illustration: a single adult under 65 at the “modest” level, an annual payment of £3276 is suggested.  For “intermediate”, the figure is £7540, rising to £11,700 for the “full”.

The authors dutifully crunch the numbers through a sophisticated tax and benefits model. They conclude that even at the modest level, UBI would have a big effect in terms of reducing poverty. Income inequality would fall sharply, especially under the “full” proposal.

So what is not to like? Not much, according to a previous Compass report on basic income. No fewer than 75 per cent of those surveyed were in favour. Who wouldn’t be? 

But one of the two main problems is startlingly obvious: the cost. Rather mystifyingly, however, the report initially claims that there would be “no net increase in taxation”. A veritable miracle. To be fair, the authors go on immediately to say “the cost of the extra payments would be exactly offset by the extra revenue from internal changes in tax rates and National Insurance Contributions (NICs)”.

The phrase “internal changes” is quite a euphemism for massive hikes. Indeed, the report estimates that in order to fund even the modest UBI, “internal changes” to tax rates would be required which would in fact increase taxes by £160bn a year.  

The “full” version needs a tax increase of no less than £510bn – some 25 per cent of the total national income of the UK.

So the cost of even a modest scheme is very high.  

The second issue, often raised by opponents of such a scheme, is that it would undermine incentives to work. The authors acknowledge this, and dismiss it in a paragraph by citing a single study on the impact of a benefit sanction scheme.

Rather than wading through impenetrable academic papers, the furlough scheme provides us with a very real world example. Some people did indeed use their time during lockdowns to start new projects or businesses, but many maintained the status quo – being paid to not work. 

While the aims of a universal basic income are laudable, the costs are eye-wateringly high; Johnson may need flexibility to steer us through the cost of living crisis, but it must have an anchor in Conservative ideology. 

As published in City AM Wednesday 1st June 2022
Paul Ormerod
Image: Flickr

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.