What George Osborne doesn't want you to know about the economy

Including, this is still the slowest recovery for 100 years, the economy is 2.9% smaller and most people are still getting poorer.

After the economy grew for two consecutive quarters and growth forecasts were revised from the terrible to the merely mediocre, George Osborne has decided it's time to declare victory. In his speech earlier today in east London, the Chancellor claimed that "those in favour of a Plan B have lost the argument" and that Britain was "turning the corner". The media, most of which endorsed austerity in 2010, has every interest in echoing his words. But here are five reasons why it's still the Chancellor and his supporters who have all the explaining to do. 

1. This is still the slowest recovery for more than a century

Growth has returned - it was always bound to at some point (and no Keynesian ever suggested otherwise) - but this remains the slowest recovery for more than 100 years. Had Osborne achieved the OBR's original June 2010 forecasts, the economy would now be 8.1% larger. Instead, after a collapse in private and public investment, it's only 4% larger. To make up the lost ground since 2010, the economy would need to grow at 1.3% a quarter for the next two years. Output of 0.7% is the least we should expect (not least when the population is growing). 

2. The economy is 2.9% smaller than before the crash (the US is 4.5% larger)

Owing to three years of anaemic growth, the economy is still 2.9% below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 4.5% larger than in 2007 after growth three times greater than that of the UK since autumn 2010. And it's not just the Americans who have outpaced us. The UK recovery has been slower that of any other G7 country bar Italy. 

3. Unemployment hasn't fallen for six months and underemployment is at a near-record high

Before the economy returned to growth, the Tories were hailing employment as this government's success story (as they did when the most recent were published). But the data, as so often, tells a different story. After falling from 8.4% to 7.7% between November 2011 and November 2012, the headline rate of unemployment has been stuck at around 7.8% for the last six months, 0.1% higher than its previous low.

That total joblessness has not risen to the heights experienced in the 1980s owes more to the willingness of workers to price themselves into employment (real wages have fallen by a near-unprecedented 9%) than the success of the government's strategy.  

Alongside this, underemployment is surging, with a record 1.43m in part-time jobs because they can't find full-time work. Worst of all, long-term unemployment (those out of work for more than a year) is at a near-record high and youth unemployment is at 973,000 (21.4%).

4.  His deficit reduction plan failed and he's forecast to borrow £245bn more

For a man whose raison d'etre is deficit reduction ("The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement," states the Coalition Agreement), Osborne isn't very good at it. Having originally pledged to eliminate the structural deficit by 2014-15 and ensure that debt is falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015-16, he's been forced to push both targets back to 2017-18.

Contrary to what some on the right claim, this isn't due to any lack of austerity. Infrastructure spending has been slashed by 42%, VAT has been increased to 20% and 356,000 public sector jobs have been cut, so that the state workforce is now at its lowest level since 1999. Despite all this, Osborne is still forecast to borrow £245bn more than planned across this parliament and more in five years than Labour did in 13. 

5. Most people are still getting poorer - and that won't change soon

While the media and the political class fixate over GDP, it's a poor measure of the nation's economic health. As we saw even before the crash, a growing economy can disguise stagnating or falling wages for the majority. Between April and June, average weekly earnings (excluding bonuses) rose by just 1.1% compared with a year earlier, 1.7 percentage points below the rate of inflation (2.8%). Since the election, average pay has fallen by £1,350 a year in real terms, with most now earning no more than they were in 2003, a worse performance than every EU country except Portugal, the Netherlands and Greece.

And the situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Wages aren't expected to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest and earnings for low and middle income families won't reach pre-recession levels until 2023

George Osborne takes part in a panel session on the main stage at the Campus Party computer coding event at the 02 on September 4, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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