OBR chief warns Britain will miss growth targets

Robert Chote, head of the OBR, suggests that the Chancellor will miss his 1.7 per cent growth target

The head of the government's Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has indicated that he believes the Chancellor, George Osborne, will miss his 1.7 per cent growth target for the year.

In an interview with the Independent, Robert Chote said:

Back in March our central forecast was for 1.7 per cent growth this year, which at the time was fractionally more pessimistic than the average of the outside forecasters.

Since then obviously we've had weaker out-turns in the first and second quarters than most people, including us, anticipated. For the second quarter the ONS [Office for National Statistics] explained a variety of one-off factors that contributed to that.

As a simple matter of arithmetic, in order to get to 1.7 per cent now you'd be looking for quarter-on-quarter growth rates of 1 per cent in the second and third quarters of 2011, and there aren't many people out there expecting that.

Chote's comments will add to the pressure on Osborne, amid dismal official figures that show the economy flatlining. And he is not the first to question the 1.7 per cent figure. Earlier this week, the IMF cut Britain's growth forecast from 1.7 to 1.5 per cent, warning that the UK faces a "bumpy and uneven" recovery. This week, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research warned that "in the short-term, fiscal policy is too tight, and a modest loosening would improve prospects for output and employment with little or no negative effect on fiscal credibility".

The OBR will not produce a new forecast until later in the year, when the Chancellor gives his autumn statement. However, Chote's remarks indicate that he is keen to show that the OBR is not out of touch with developments in the economy. As voices across the political spectrum continue to voice concern about economic recovery -- the slowest in a century -- the Chancellor must show he is listening. Even the IMF, which broadly backs the austerity measures, warned that the government must be willing to respond if growth and inflation do not develop as planned.

Chote did not rule out the possibility of a "bounce back", saying "there are potential pressures in both directions". However, if this does not happen, as looks likely, Osborne must work on that ever-elusive "plan for growth". At the moment, one would be forgiven for thinking it does not exist.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.