So, here we go again. This week’s good news, in case you’ve been hiding your head under a pillow (presumably because it’s the best place to scream), concerns your energy bill. From this April, the regulator Ofgem will raise the price cap that limits how much your electricity or gas suppliers can charge. This will increase the average household bill by a scary-sounding 54 per cent, or an even scarier sounding £694 a year.
And this, remember, is on average: many households will be paying more, not least those on prepaid cards, who will be punished for having less money by having their bills increased by an average of £708 a year. It’s great that the slow-motion collapse of Boris Johnson’s premiership is providing so much free home entertainment at the moment, because soon a lot of us won’t be able to afford to go out.
Lucky for us, though, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is promising a pair of measures to help us cope with a bill big enough to wipe out 20 years’ growth in disposable income at a stroke. One is a £150 council tax rebate, available to anyone living in a property falling in bands A to D. So just so long as you live in a property that wasn’t too expensive on 1 April 1991 – and so long as your council tax next year is increasing by less than £150 – you’re laughing. (We shall not worry too much about the internal politics of shared homes where council tax and electricity bills are paid by different people.)
Then there’s the other thing Sunak is calling a “rebate”, even though it definitely isn’t one: a loan, of up to £200, which the government will expect you to repay over five years, and which won’t be available until October. What happens when we get to the autumn and bills still haven’t gone down, Sunak has yet to explain.
The increase in energy bills is upsetting, but it’s hardly unique. These last few months, the good news really has kept on coming. In April national insurance is also rising, generously paid by those who are working to make sure richer people won’t need to lose too much housing equity to fund their social care. Talk of lowering the tuition fee repayment threshold, effectively yet another tax rise on the under-30s, seems to have gone quiet following an outcry. But, in January, the property website Rightmove reported that, after dipping during the worst of the pandemic, asking rents were rising at the fastest rate on record.
What is different about the energy price rise is that, unusually for this government, it will affect the old just as much as the young. Still, telling people that nothing can be done to help them with a massive squeeze in living standards is certainly a brave move for a Chancellor hoping to become prime minister, so we have to give him that.
The historian Hannah Rose Woods tweeted something this week that got me thinking. “I’m 31 and sincerely trying to remember a single good economic thing in my entire adult life.” This was inevitably greeted by a storm of replies referring to the hardships and crises of decades past – the three-day week, the winter of discontent, the boom and bust of the 1980s, and so on. What such replies miss, though, is that past busts were generally interspersed with booms: wages kept rising, and if you could get yourself on the housing ladder, you could watch your debt be inflated away.
This last decade and a half has been different. There’s been no boom. Media reports frequently still compare wages to pre-crash levels, as if matching those on offer nearly 15 years ago is some sort of achievement, and every time there’s been an inkling that things might change, another crisis (Brexit, the pandemic) has appeared on the horizon. At the same time, public services have been degraded through repeated cuts, housing costs are through the roof for anyone who doesn’t own, and where previous generations received maintenance grants to go to university the young face only fees and debt.
The word “millennial” is still, often, used as a synonym for “young”. But the young, today, are Generation Z: the oldest millennials are hitting 40, facing all the disappointments and inconvenience of middle age without any of the security or comfort that’s historically provided consolation. Now their taxes are going up, too, and when a bill big enough to ruin them comes in, the Chancellor shakes his head and says there’s nothing he can do. I wish I still had the energy to pretend to be surprised.