Making sure the green shoots don’t wither away

The UK may be in recovery, writes Scott Barnes, but how can we keep it that way?

Recent third quarter GDP figures for the UK showed a growth of 1.0 per cent, however when these figures were announced, many commentators were keen to point out that discounting this summer’s Olympic Games and Diamond Jubilee spending, the economy has remained stagnant year on year. Although this is a continuation of the current pessimism around the UK economy, the question is whether when you take a closer look at the situation, this is justified. 

Some recent research undertaken by us in conjunction with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that mid-sized businesses have actually, for the most part, been growing well during the past few years of economic stagnation. After taking a closer look at this growth, it found that mid-sized businesses have been able to boost their productivity, with turnover per employee 18 per cent higher than the UK average, and as a result increase their turnover by £25.7bn over the past year. 

In addition, the third quarter of 2012 company liquidations were down 2.8 per cent from the previous quarter, and 6.6 per cent less than the same quarter in 2011. One of the major factors behind this is that the current low interest rates mean that struggling businesses are better able to service their loans and pay off the interest. As a result, banks are less concerned about calling the loan in. Those businesses that can’t afford to tackle the debt itself are given a bit more breathing space, allowing them to concentrate on growing revenue, rather than struggling to meet loan payments. 

The latest quarterly Business Confidence Monitor from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales and Grant Thornton shows that business confidence is actually higher in regions outside of London and the South East. There have been some encouraging initiatives recently from the Government and it will be interesting to see how this glimmer of regional confidence is affected by the recent review by Lord Heseltine and the Coalition Government’s "City Deals" plan. Together, these schemes have called for more government funds to be diverted to regional governments and greater powers for mayors to support this entrepreneurialism and dynamism across the UK.

The pervading economic climate continues to be a proving ground for companies, with those that are still in business emerging lean, organised and efficient. Businesses are taking a fundamental look at how their business is run in order to weather the worst of the economic storm. Clear effective governance, robust planning and attention to financial levers mean they are now equipped to deal with this kind of environment. 

Before businesses start to invest again, economic confidence needs to come from somewhere, and the government must shout about how well we’re doing, and keep providing support for British businesses. If just a fraction of the estimated £720bn of cash reserves in British businesses was invested back into the economy, business investment would return to pre-crisis levels. While the "new normal" means we have to adjust our growth expectations, confidence is needed to ensure the recent economic growth doesn't just prove to be an anomaly and continues.

Green shoots. Photograph: Getty Images

Scott Barnes is the CEO of Grant Thornton UK.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.