We need active government to revive our retail sector

Without immediate stimulus, we risk inflicting permanent damage on our retailers.

These are tough times for one of the UK’s most successful and innovative sectors: retail. Whatever else we were up to during the Olympics, we weren’t shopping – figures from the ONS this week show that retail sales actually fell in August compared to July, with the hoped-for Olympic retail bounce sadly not materialising. The underlying picture is of an industry which, despite being worth more to our economy than the whole of the manufacturing sector, and employing one in ten workers, has still not recovered its 2007 position relative to other sectors. 

As I said when I addressed more than a thousand industry leaders at the British Retail Consortium’s Annual Dinner this week, this is not for want of trying. Retailers come from all over the world to walk through British stores to gain inspiration and to poach ideas. This leadership is not just in conventional retail. As more and more commerce moves online, British retailers are adapting fastest, with a greater share of goods bought online in the UK than in any other major market.

The biggest problem for the retail sector is that it is the consumer-facing end of an economy hit by the recession made in Downing Street. Householders facing a squeeze on their incomes today and lacking confidence about what the future might hold are, understandably, reluctant to spend. The longer this economic malaise continues, the more our national debt will rise and the more permanent damage it will do to our economy. In practical terms, this means the drying up of investment in future capacity, the scarring effects on young people whose first experience of the labour market is unemployment, as well as the decline in the skills of those who have lost their jobs.

We must bring the public finances into balance as soon as we can. But a stalled economy today means that borrowing is rising, and the ambition of fiscal balance is further away. In the meantime, we are all worse off today and the future success of our economy is held back. 

That is why Labour is calling for an immediate stimulus through our five-point plan for jobs and growth. These are common sense measures, each one backed by business, based on the right diagnosis. A temporary VAT cut, like that introduced by Alistair Darling in 2008, would make a real difference, getting the economy moving, orders on books and cash registers ringing once again.

In difficult times, our retailers are working hard to respond to the changing demands of consumers, who are increasingly shopping through multiple channels, at all times of day and night, and are becoming more focused on the shopping ‘experience’: not just on the value of a brand, but also on the values it represents. These trends offer big opportunities for companies willing to rise to this challenge – and increasingly it is retailers leading the way.

So, we see retailers embracing their responsibilities to the environment, realising the opportunities of this approach and valuing their customers as partners in this task, alongside taking an active interest in improving their local communities by considering their impact on the areas in which they operate and looking for ways to source more locally. This is better for our society and better for the environment. But it is good business too. 

These are exactly the kinds of models, practices and behaviours that Ed Miliband is talking about in his call for a more responsible capitalism: more firms focused on building value for the long term, which value and nurture their employees – such as the fantastic joint working with the trade union Usdaw in the retail sector – and seeing economic strength and social responsibility as two sides of the same coin.

This trend reflects businesses being moved to act responsibly in their own interest, delivering value for their firms and society in general. But government has responsibilities too, in supporting firms in making these choices. That is why the successful future for the British economy must be built on a true partnership between productive business and active government, responding to each sector’s specific needs and circumstances.

With the right action from government, working in partnership with business, I have no doubt we can get Britain back on the right path – growing again, competing again, pulling together, not pulling apart.

Despite the Olympics, retail sales fell in August compared to July. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.