GDP grows by 0.3 per cent

The ONS figures show stagnation is still the name of the game.

The preliminary estimate for GDP growth in the first quarter of 2013 has come in at 0.3 per cent. That's higher than the vast majority of economists had predicted, coming in as it does against a consensus estimate of 0.1 per cent.

Clearly, the difference between growth of -0.1 and 0.1 per cent is where the real disconnect is in the political debate. If it were the first, then we would have been in a triple-dip recession. As it is, we aren't, and the chancellor will be able to begin a narrative of our slow return to growth. In fact, coming in at 0.3 per cent may even lead to a temptation to drop the "slow" part of that narrative. We're growing three times faster than the forecasts predicted! Break out the champagne!

And Osborne should allow himself a momentary pat on the back. Beating expecations, even vastly depressed expectations, is always a good thing. But even with today's news, the wider-scale conclusion is the same: Britain's growth is anaemic. In 2012, the economy shrank. In 2011, it grew less than one per cent. In 2013, NIESR predict that it will grow by slightly more than one per cent, and today's figures, annualised, are just 1.2 per cent growth. We won't have annual growth above two per cent until 2015.

That's disastrous on a number of levels. Our economic system is basically built around a paradigm of real economic growth in the two to three per cent range. We can handle short-term deviations from that norm, but the long-term trend must remain the same. Growth much below that isn't growth at all; it's stagnation by another name. On top of that, real GDP growth isn't the only figure we heard today; we also know the growth per capita. And in a country with a rising population like ours, we need to be growing just for that to stand still. With a population growing at around 0.6 per cent a year, that means this quarter's growth only "feels" like 0.15 per cent to any individual.

Lest you think this is just lefty attacks on Osborne, remember: I wrote much the same in February, when it seemed likely there would be a triple dip. The symbolic disconnect between recession and growth is too tempting, and too many people focus on it. The reality is, the British economy is going to be rubbish for years to come. Celebrating because it's marginally less rubbish than it might have been lies somewhere on the line between "blitz spirit" and "idiotic optimism".

Breakdown

So what's going on beneath the surface?

The GDP growth stems entirely from a growth in the service sector; that grew by 0.6 per cent in the last quarter, contributing 0.5 per cent to the overall GDP figure. That was offset by a massive fall in the construction sector, down 2.7 per cent – which knocked 0.2 per cent off the overall figure.

Those numbers show the discrepancy in the importance of the respective sectors; even more obviously, the contraction in the "Agriculture, forestry & fishing" sector, down 3.7 per cent, had no effect on the headline number. We are a service economy, and becoming more of a service economy every quarter.

Apart from that, one other figure jumps out from the release. The "government" sector, which shrunk by 0.9 per cent last quarter, grew by 0.5 per cent this quarter. That means it goes from contributing a 0.2 per cent contraction to the headline figure in Q4 2012 to adding 0.1 per cent to the headline figure this quarter. As the government has quietly put its deficit reduction plan on hold, shrinking PSNB by nominal amounts, it has been able to start spending on infrastructure. We're now seeing that effect.

An earlier version of this post confused quarterly and annual population growth. This has been amended.

GDP and main components. Figure: ONS

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.