In times of struggle, the British buy cars

It's not a rational response to economic hardship, but it is a British one.

The UK car industry has in the past been associated with British Leyland’s unreliability, emptying factory floors and rusting scrap yards. It is now the most unlikely, but welcome, source of continuous good news in the post-2008 economy.

As the recession trudges on it’s become an accepted wisdom that consumers will not spend on luxuries, they will avoid large expense and they are not confident enough to invest in long term products. It seems a stretch to imagine that in a recession the car industry would remain buoyant; surely, it’s pure fantasy to say that it would do well?

There were early signs that the car industry held hope for consumers, GDP-watchers and policy makers alike. When the Labour government launched a car scrappage scheme in March 2009 car sales increased beyond expectations. Up to 400,000 cars, each around 27 per cent more efficient than its scrapped counterpart, were sold as a result of the scheme. The policy will go down in records as one of the most successful of the stimulus policies following the 2008 crash.

When that stimulus was taken away wouldn’t the car industry, which was already in decline before the crash, lose business? Maybe in the short term, but in the long term the good news has continued. Foreign companies have chosen to invest in production at plants in Sunderland, Ellesmere Port and Halewood. The first quarter of 2012 became the first time since 1976 that motor exports exceeded motor imports. With models like the Land Rover Freelander, the Vauxhall Astra and the Nissan Qashqai now built in the UK, the car manufacturing industry is now among the most viable and important in the UK.

British people aren’t buying cars in the middle of a recession, are they? Yes. They really are. In the year from July 2011 to July 2012, new car sales increased by 10.5 per cent even as we slipped back into recession. With their much welcomed GDP boosting powers this increase does not look like it is stopping.

On 1st September, when the new “62” registration plate is released, over 165,000 new cars will make their way from forecourts to the UK’s roads. This week Vertu Motors, a top ten UK motor retailer, released research which estimates that these sales will be worth in the region of £500m to the treasury in VAT alone, and an additional £20m in road tax.

Boosts in sales are not only good for the UK’s GDP, but for the budget too. New models are more carbon efficient than ever before, passing on benefits to consumers and relative improvements for the environment too.

In trying times, when all that we are given are negative stories and confidence is low, we can find a surprising and much needed boost for UK consumers and manufacturers in high cost luxury goods.

In times of struggle, the British buy cars. Go figure.

Cars pile up in a scrapyard as they're replaced with newer models. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Robb reads PPE at Oxford University where she is deputy editor of ISIS magazine.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496