Long-term thinking for the UK economy

Plane taking off at Heathrow Airport Will the government build any new runways in the South East?

Why do we spend so little time talking about what really matters?

That's the question I once again asked myself, reading the final report of the London School of Economics' Growth Commission.

Before you ask, I haven't just come back from a spiritual retreat, eager to talk about enlightenment and the meaning of life (I was in Davos, which - trust me - is not the same thing at all).

I'm still talking about economics here.

But reading and listening to the political debate about UK economic policy, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the most important economic decisions the government makes are all fiscal: Will they or won't they press ahead with Plan A, or Plan A-minus? How much, exactly, will it cut from welfare? And when?

Strategic failure

These are important short-term issues - especially if you're someone affected by one of those cuts. They might have some impact on the recovery. And, of course, they are exciting politically, with lots of opportunity for the main parties to lay into one another.

But if you ask business leaders, or most economists, which government decisions taken over the next few years will have the biggest long-term impact on our economic future, I'm not sure that Plan A versus Plan B would even make it to the top three.

Far more important, to them, would be the kind of long-term strategic choices highlighted in the LSE's report.

For example:

  • Will the government build any new runways in the South East - or come up with a better way of taking these big infrastructure decisions in the future?
  • Will planning reforms actually make it easier to expand businesses - or build the right kind of new housing?
  • Or will the financial system get better at channelling investment funds to growing firms?

To economists, all of these things probably matter more, to Britain's economic future, than the short-term debate between Plan A and Plan B.

That's because, one way or another, they all go to the Achilles heel of the UK economy: "A failure to achieve stable planning, strategic vision and a political consensus on the right policy framework to support growth".

Britain has many economic strengths, the LSE Report points out. But that consistently short-termist, confused approach to investment - in our physical capital and in our people - is holding us back.

The report gives Britain's politicians a good chunk of the blame for this strategic failure. But there is plenty more to go around.

Update 18:05

I've been speaking to one respected economist and policymaker who thinks I've forgotten one big way that short-term decisions on UK fiscal and monetary policy could affect the UK's long-term economic health. That is through their effect on youth unemployment.

According to the latest figures, there are 633,000 16-24 year olds out of work in the UK (excluding those in full-time education). That's an unemployment rate of 18%. About 28% of these young people have been looking for work for over a year.

As we know, the economy has been producing jobs, even though it has not been producing much growth. But young people have received less than their fair share of that extra work. The slower the recovery, the longer it may take for them to get their foot on the ladder.

As my economist friend points out, that's not just bad news for the people affected and their families. It's also bad for the country, long-term, because all the evidence suggests that individuals who have a period of unemployment at the start of their working life pay a heavy price for that bad luck. Their earning power is permanently affected and they are more likely to need financial support from government.

So, there is at least one way in which short-term decisions on macroeconomic policy by the Bank of England and the chancellor could be important for the long-term as well.

This doesn't really contradict what I was saying before. The LSE report highlights the great need to invest in our human capital, by improving our education system and investing in skills. But the authors of the report (and the secretary of state for work and pensions) would probably agree - one of the greatest investments that any government can make in its future workforce is to help get unemployed young people into work.

Stephanie Flanders Article written by Stephanie Flanders Stephanie Flanders Former economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    UK has banking sector which is very successful but does not support the industries and services across the country. This is a structural and long term problem which has never been dealt with. USA Germany and others have much more supportive banks behind their economies. The government could make the system perform a lot better for UK Ltd.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    Some might argue they ply their trade with great success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    The LSE is right over the past 50 years UK economic policy has failed. 50 years ago we were the third richest country in the world measured by GDP per capita (PPP) today we have fallen to 23rd behind not only Germany but also the Netherlands, Singapore and Ireland our standard of living is worse than our neighbours and our media has failed to get our politicians to face up to their failure

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    £ falling still low exports (the price in the widow got less but turn over is stagnant)

    Bond market bubble about to pop

    Japan in big trouble

    The fed printing the $ into the ground whilst buying back over 60% of what it issues

    Germany & the like wanting gold back

    Inflation way higher than ONS states (everyone knows that) therefore GDP even lower so STILL in recession!


  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Woh hang on, this growth forecast GDP small talk is al very well BUT when the bond market starts to crumble (the signs are that that will be soon, very soon) & the £ is still falling we R going to be in the big sticky stuff R we not?!

    I mean if the price of UK sov debt goes up on the back of a bond market fall we will have no where to go with interest rates will we not

    A car crash seems likely


Comments 5 of 260


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