The business argument is with the EU

Even if the politics are a disaster zone.

Ever since the financial crisis, a previously buoyant eurozone has turned into a disaster zone. The single currency has lurched from crisis to catastrophe as the finances of member states have come under pressure. Bailouts that appear to be funded in large part from northern Europe are keeping several countries in southern Europe afloat. The next crisis is potentially lurking at the tail end of summer, with Cyprus due to get its next tranche of cash from the unofficial troika of the EU, ECB and IMF in early September. That is dependent on the country meeting stringent financial and budgetary targets and there is little evidence so far that they will be met.

With a German election by then just around the corner, it is unlikely that German chancellor Angela Merkel will be in the mood for leniency. The upshot could be that Cyprus is allowed to exit the single currency – the last six months having bought enough time to make it potentially a more orderly exit, and the economy is small enough for the ramifications to be less seismic than if a country such as Greece had fallen out.

Regardless of what happens in September (and it is as easy to paint a picture in which Cyprus gets the cash and everything carries on as it is), the eurozone’s troubles at least partly explain why the subject of the EU and the UK’s role within it is so high on the political agenda. As leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron set out his stall clearly. He said he didn’t want the party to keep “banging on about Europe”. But the growth of anti-EU sentiment and the seemingly unstoppable rise of UKIP in particular has meant that, as prime minister, Cameron has had to bang on about it quite a lot.

UK politicians and the media are having to regularly discuss details (and not the possibility) of previously abstract ideas such as a referendum, renegotiation of the country’s relationship with the EU, or even complete withdrawal. The trouble is that all these discussions happen at a volume and intensity that rarely allow for sensible debate. Economic arguments are formed and numbers and statistics thrown around with little heed for anything other than scoring points and winning the argument.

It was somewhat sobering this month then to get a snapshot of what the UK’s exporters (clearly the key to UK economic recovery) think about Europe. The most often repeated story when it comes to discussions about where the UK recovery will come from is that exporters will have to seek out sales in high-growth emerging markets in far-flung corners of the world. So-called BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, China and India) are cited above all as the key for our future success. Well, this didn’t chime with recent research conducted by economia. We asked the leaders of 500 businesses (a mix of those already exporting and those not currently doing so but with plans to do so in the next three to five years) to rate different markets around the world for their importance.

While it was no surprise to see Western Europe rated as important or very important this year by more respondents than any other market (71 per cent compared to the next most popular market, Asia at 55 per cent), what was less expected was the pattern when respondents were asked to rate the importance of markets in three to five years’ time. Here again Western Europe dominated by a similar margin. Even more unlikely was the rise of North America in the future (up by 5 per cent), knocking Asia back into third place.

Part of the explanation for the continued preference for Europe is the geography. Cost of exports was cited as a concern for and a factor in choosing markets by almost all respondents regardless of size or sector. And while the short distances help, some of the ease of doing business in Europe is driven by the standardisation of market rules and regulations and the lack of need to comply with different country guidelines or indeed to pay any import duties.

It appears from this that when asked about Europe on a purely business basis, without any of the political or emotive overlay, there is overwhelming support for the simplification benefits that arise from EU membership. More detailed analysis of the findings of this research needs to be conducted, but initial findings suggest there is also a worrying reluctance on the part of UK exporters to tap into the phenomenal growth of the emerging economies. In the mid-term at least, the ease of doing business in Europe appears to be winning over the potential returns from more long-term investments in places such as China, India, Russia or Brazil.

That would suggest that keeping close to Europe may be economically beneficial regardless of the politics.

This story first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.