Stop focusing on triple dips. Anaemic growth is just as bad

Welcome to stagnation. It's not a nice place to be.

Tomorrow, the ONS will release its second estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter of 2012. The revisions may be up or down, and you'd be a fool to bet on which direction it will be. But barring a miracle, it's still going to be terrible growth.

That's true even if the revisions push the estimated contraction into positive territory. Such is the focus on whether or not Britain will enter a "technical recession" for the second time running that we have started to act as if anaemic growth is acceptable. It isn't.

If nothing else, it's important to remember that GDP staying flat is the equivalent of every individual in Britain getting poorer. That's because the British population is growing, usually by somewhere between 0.5 and 1 per cent a year (0.7 per cent according to the most recent figures from the World Bank). As a result, GDP per capita, the share of the national income that each of us receives, is correspondingly lower than GDP. Unless annual GDP growth is higher than population growth, it's not even really fair to say we're "stagnating". We are getting poorer.

But even discounting that possibility, stagnation above the rate of population growth remains an extremely concerning phenomenon. 2013 overall will probably experience real growth in GDP per capita. NIESR's economic forecasts put it at 0.4 per cent growth per capita, and 1.1 per cent GDP growth:

But 1.1 per cent growth is far, far below anything that Britain would need to either keep deficit reduction on track (the main worry if you're George Osborne) or to prevent further erosion of crucial public services (the main worry if you're anyone else). The Bank of England, which made similar projections to NIESR, is so shocked that it is prepared to overlook its entire raison d'être and allow a period of above-target inflation to get us out of those doldrums.

The OBR, kings of the downward revision, have spent the last three years forecasting that 2 per cent growth was just around the corner. That remains their forecast, and currently that growth rate is projected for 2014. The OBR has previously forecast two per cent growth for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Whether that continued optimism is justified or not, when future economic plans are based on it, every miss hits even harder.

(To be clear, the problem isn't that the OBR is frequently wrong. All economic forecasts are hugely variable, and the agency makes clear in its outlooks that the rage of probable outcomes is large. The problem is that the OBR is frequently wrong in the same direction. For over two years now, it has predicted growth above the actual outcome. If someone misses the bullseye nine times in a row, they're just unlucky — but if every one of those shots hits above the centre, it's pretty likely that they need to start aiming lower.)

The worst thing about accepting stagnation as a natural, even positive, outcome is that it will lead to a huge amount of unnecessary pain. It's not just that we won't grow fast enough. It's also that we'll be trapped in a dead zone of investment, too poor for the government to finally decide it has "enough money" to start dealing with our broken housing market and crumbling infrastructure, but growing just enough that it won't be forced to abandon austerity and enact pro-growth measures which actually work.

But if the right is wrongly promoting the acceptability of stagnation, there's a parallel criticism for the left. A "technical recession" isn't that much worse than minuscule growth. The difference between 0.1 per cent contraction and 0.1 per cent growth is 0.2 percentage points. A truism, certainly, but if the Chancellor's forecast was for 2.0 per cent and the outcome was 1.8 per cent, there would be little commentary.

As our economy floats along at the zero line, sometimes slightly over, sometimes slightly under, the temptation may be to crow every time the latter occurs. But that runs the risk of implying that the former is acceptable, when it really isn't. Our corrugated economy is the problem, and that's not going away any time soon.

This puppy is sad at British economic stagnation. 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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