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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.