IMF: Britain should consider "flexibility" in Plan A

"Consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path."

The IMF has cut its forecasts of UK GDP growth in 2013 and 2014 by 0.3 percentage points for each year, to 0.7 and 1.5 per cent respectively. The figure for 2013 is still 0.1pp above the OBR's own forecast for 2013, but where the OBR sees growth picking up rapidly – rising to 1.8 per cent in 2014, and then 2.8 per cent by 2018  the IMF is predicting a slower recovery.

The predictions come from the Fund's World Economic Outlook, its biannual publication looking at the global economic situation. Writing about the UK, the WEO says;

The recovery is progressing slowly, notably in the context of weak external demand and ongoing fiscal consolidation… Domestic rebalancing from the public to the private sector is being held back by deleveraging, tight credit conditions and economic uncertainty, while declining productivity growth and high unit labour costs are holding back much needed external rebalancing…
Consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path.

Merely calling for "consideration" to be given – rather than a demand for immediate "flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path" – provides an out, of sorts, for the Government. Expect to hear the chancellor confirming that he has "considered" the IMF's advice, but decided not to act on it, due to (something). Indeed, the FT cites Treasury sources already spinning the news, claiming the word choice "showed the fund was still sitting on the fence."

But as the Guardian reports, Oliver Blanchard, the Fund's Chief economist, did tell a press conference in the US today that:

The IMF would hold talks with the UK government in the coming months, to "see what can be done" about the pace of deficit reduction.
"In the face of very weak private demand it is time to consider adjustment to the original fiscal plan," Blanchard explained.

The WEO was more positive about the monetary side of the chancellor's record. Although it cautions that the Bank of England may find it hard to unwind the positions it has taken throughout four years of QE, which might force it to face significant trade-offs when it comes to fighting inflation in the future, it also praises the overall strategy of "monetary activism with fiscal responsibility and supply side reform".

That advice goes against the intervention of former MPC member Adam Posen, who today warned of the limits of Mark Carney's potential as Bank of England governor. But it gives Osborne enough cover to struggle on for a while longer.

Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty
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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.