March of the makers? Hardly

More like the march of the ex-builders, plumbers, carpenters, electricians and roofers.

Today, it is the turn of the construction industry to enter centre stage and, as usual, these days, the news isn't good.

First, the ONS published its New Orders in the Construction Industry: 2nd quarter 2011. Unfortunately, there weren't many. New orders in the second quarter of 2011 fell by 16.3 per cent in comparison with the first quarter.

The total volume of all new orders is now at its lowest total since the third quarter of 1980.

New construction orders fell by 23.2 per cent, compared with the same period in 2010. Private industrial was the only sector that showed positive growth from the first to the second quarter (6.6 per cent).

New orders in construction have collapsed under the coalition. Here is the data in constant (2005) prices, seasonally adjusted in millions of pounds, showing the collapse of new orders from the second half of 2010 -- in other words, when the coalition took office.

Q1 £13,376
Q2 £12,375
Q3 £11,503
Q4 £12,983

Q1 £11,349
Q2 £9,502

Also, today, CIPS/Markit published their PMI for UK construction, which showed that rate of growth in construction continued to weaken in August. It was notable that employment levels and sub-contractor usage continued to fall during the latest survey period, which respondents linked to either lower workloads or expectations of weaker market demand

Sarah Bingham, economist at Markit and author of the UK construction PMI said:

August data signalled slower growth of both output and new orders as headwinds caused by uncertain economic conditions impacted on sector performance. Confidence regarding future business expectations weakened to an eight-month low, highlighting concerns in respect of further potential cuts in government spending, but also a dampening of wider business sentiment, which may act to reduce investment on construction projects. Another month of job cuts again reinforced lower confidence over future activity levels within the construction sector.

In my column this week, I worried that the march of the makers may become the march of the unemployed ex-makers. The march of the ex-builders, ex-plumbers, ex-carpenters, ex-electricians and ex-roofers appears to have already started.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.