With every fare rise and fee increase, the government decides to defy the inflation hawks

This year and next, a full 0.6pp of inflation will be because of direct government decisions.

Last week, I wrote about how inflation is worst for those who spend a large proportion of their income on essentials. The cost of essentials, defined as food, housing, energy and travel, increased by 3.7 per cent last year, well above CPI's 2.8 per cent increase. Since the recession, essentials have increased in price by more than 33 per cent, while nominal incomes have gone up by just 10 per cent.

A large driver of that increase, however, is the direct effect of government policy. For instance, council tax, road tax and almost all public transport fares are set by the state, as are most of the costs of highly-taxed goods like alcohol, tobacco, fuel and heating and power.

Now, the weekly briefing note produced by Deloitte's Chief Economist, Ian Stewart, makes clear that a similar effect is happening to the headline rate of inflation. Stewart writes:

In its latest Inflation Report, the Bank noted that one of the reasons behind persistently high inflation was higher 'administered and regulated prices', i.e., prices affected by government or regulatory decisions. Of these, a key contributor has been the rising price of education, largely reflecting rises in undergraduate tuition fees. Another contributor is higher domestic energy prices as a result of current climate change and energy policies and further investment into the UK's gas and electricity distribution networks.

According to the Bank, these two drivers have, together, amplified UK inflation by 0.4 percentage points last year and will do so by 0.6 percentage points this year and the next.

The latter reason is something you hear a lot about from inflation hawks, given the frequent coincidence of climate scepticism and fear of inflation; the former, not so much. When it comes down to it, one way to keep inflation low would be to fund essential public services through general taxation or deficit spending, neither of which tend to be routes advocated by inflation hawks.

Stewart also pokes the Bank of England about whether or not it is strictly applying its mandate. Technically, the Bank has only one role: to keep inflation as close to its 2 percentage points target as possible, and certainly within one percentage point either side. But instead, under both Mervyn King and, it is expected, Mark Carney, the bank has refused to take actions to bring down inflation if they would harm growth. Stewart writes:

This approach has led some analysts to point out that the Bank now seems to place greater emphasis on growth than on its explicit inflation target. It is not just that, in the words of the Bank's governor Sir Mervyn King "policy is exceptionally accommodative to growth". A debate is underway as to whether the Bank of England, and indeed other central banks, should run even easier monetary policy, possibly risking higher inflation in the long term, in order to bolster growth. In December, the US Fed set itself an additional target of bringing down the US unemployment rate to below 6.5%, before it considers raising interest rates.

Mark Carney, the next governor of the Bank of England, has recently said that central banks should consider radical measures, including commitments to keep interest rates on hold for extended periods of time or scrapping inflation targets, to boost growth.

Needless to say, the fact that the Bank of England is not crushing our already anaemic growth to bring inflation down from around 3 per cent to around 2 per cent is a feature, not a bug, in the system. Regardless of what the inflation target actually is, the fact that the Bank tends to be run by extraordinarily talented individuals who are working for the financial health of the country means that they are prepared to make sensible decisions even if they aren't necessarily the prescribed ones. But the choices raise further questions about whether the monolithic inflation target is the right way to run a central bank in the 21st century.

A hawk. 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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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