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The first major speech made by Philip Hammond as UK chancellor — to the Conservative party conference last year — was by far his best to date. Nothing he has done since has come close to fulfilling the prospect he then held up to fix the many (homegrown) dysfunctions of the UK economy. In this he resembles the prime minister, whose statement on the day of taking office demonstrated a better sense of what ails Britain than most of her party colleagues, and whose actions since have done little other than betray that understanding.
Free Lunch sees no reason to expect the chancellor to revive his initial promise when he presents the Budget today. On the big economic challenges facing the country, nothing suggests more than tweaks along the margin.
What are these challenges? Here are four — and that’s not even mentioning Brexit.
First, the strain on the National Health Service. The King’s Fund points out that on official forecasts, the share of public spending on health in gross domestic product will have fallen in the decade to 2019-20, to 6.8 per cent, from 7.6 per cent in 2009-10. This while GDP itself has fallen far below the pre-crisis trend, and the population keeps ageing. The government’s determination to curtail European immigration will make the demographic and hence the economic problem worse (not to speak of staffing challenges).
Second, a continued crunch on living standards. The Resolution Foundation has done sterling work in documenting just how steep the fall in real incomes has been since the crisis; they are now shrinking again after a short recovery. Stingier welfare benefits reinforce the hurt for the less well off, and this is set to worsen.
Third, the housing crisis. The continued rise in housing costs, linked to the failure to ensure a sufficient rate of housing construction, makes the squeeze on living standards among the young and non-propertied even worse than just real income numbers will show. Some additional subsidies on the demand side, even tweaks to the dysfunctional stamp duty, will not help. Nothing short of radical planning reform, greater freedom for local authorities to finance their own building or force private developers to build faster and better (under threat, if necessary, of compulsory purchase of land), coupled with a large and funded housebuilding programme and root-and-branch reform of wealth and property taxation, will do the job.
Fourth, a productivity stagnation that is awful even compared with the disappointing performance of most rich countries.
This is a deep-rooted problem, hard to fix but of which Hammond is certainly aware. Paradoxically, it may have been his predecessor’s last flourish that is the best the government so far has to offer to boost productivity. Sarah O’Connor shows how the increase in the minimum wage that George Osborne put in place in 2015 seems to have had the desired effect of making employers invest in labour-saving machinery. But this alone, while welcome (it also helps with living standards at the lowest level) will not be enough.
None of these four crises is likely to receive any significant remedy in today’s Budget. Instead it will focus too much on public deficit and debts, which policymakers should not now treat as a priority. Read my colleague Chris Giles’s rundown of 10 things and a joker to look for in the Budget, for the items that we are likely to see addressed but not in a way that makes much difference.
Compared with the sort of economic policy effort Britain sorely needs, this is set to be a grand disappointment.