Although we are no clearer about how, when or even if the UK will be leaving the EU, it is worth considering areas the UK government must address in order to make the best not of the next few months, but of the next decade.
Two months ago, in the World Economic Forum’s annual report on countries’ competitiveness, the UK slipped down two places to eighth out of 140, with the top places held by the USA, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. The WEF, best known for its annual Davos conference, takes a wide-ranging view of competitiveness, considering such things as infrastructure, macroeconomic stability, health, skills of the labour force, the financial system and the quality of universities. Although the UK did well in areas such as workforce diversity and the quality of our legal institutions, we dropped down the table because of poor health provision and a lack of investment in ICT-related infrastructure and human capital.
Although the UK currently has record low levels of unemployment, our productivity (output per hour) compared to our competitors is low and this correlates with the WEF comments about our low investment in human capital. In the 1980s our productivity growth averaged 2.4% pa, in the 1990s it was 2.3% pa, in the 2000s it had fallen to 1.4% pa, largely due to the financial crisis, and, since 2010 it has averaged 0.5% pa. If we had been able to maintain the productivity growth of the earlier decades before the financial crisis, UK GDP would be about 20% higher than at present. However, despite all the attention paid to productivity in recent years, the situation might not be as bad as predicted. A recent OECD reports suggests that the UK has over-estimated the number of hours worked by not fully accounting, among other factors, for the increase in part-time work. Nevertheless, it still remains that if UK workers are to get richer, then the country must produce more, either by working longer or becoming more productive.
One area which will need addressing to boost productivity is research and development (R&D). Our R&D spending has been a lower proportion of GDP than many competing countries with the UK spending only 2/3 as much as a percentage of GDP as Germany, Japan and the USA. However the government has committed to increase this to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, up from 1.4% today, and has created a Productivity Investment Fund worth £31bn to assist. It has already committed £7bn with 600 projects receiving funds but there is still scope to increase this.
Another is business investment which, for the last twenty years has been among the lowest of OECD members, not helped recently by the uncertainty in the economy. From 1997 to 2017, gross fixed capital formation in the UK (capital expenditure by the public and private sectors, e.g. spending on factories, plant and machinery, transport equipment, software, new dwellings, and improvements to existing buildings and roads) averaged 17% of GDP pa compared to 21% in Germany and the USA and 25% in Japan. It is particularly weak in the low wage sectors of the economy and, ironically, it is possible that a decline in inward migration might encourage investment in these sectors if the supply of cheap labour dries up in the future. Low corporation tax and generous tax allowances and grants will be crucial in boosting our investment but, as well as generous financial assistance, businesses will be seeking a guarantee that the tax regime will be stable to allow them to plan for the future.
A third area which needs addressing is infrastructure. Although the UK has delivered some successful infrastructure projects (e.g. London 2012), our record is not good. Crossrail is likely to be delayed even further and cost more than predicted, estimates for HS2 are increasing and London airport expansion seems stuck in an eternal holding pattern. Not only does such investment increase our productive potential, it also creates a very powerful stimulus to aggregate demand since so much of the cost remains in the UK economy in terms of labour and raw material costs, creating a powerful multiplier effect. Note that while we have been considering expanding Heathrow’s airport capacity by one airport, China is aiming to increase its number of airports from 207 in 2015 to 260 by 2020. There is also a feeling that too much infrastructure has been focused on the South East and a recent development which might help to address the imbalance is the appointment of regional mayors. The seven current mayors argue that transferring more power and resources to them will increase growth and improve productivity in their regions. They want more control over public services including skills, training and apprenticeship services, and the programmes designed to help people get back to work. They also want greater control over how tax revenue is spent, rather than relying on Government grants and control over any regional funds set up to replace EU funding.
A final key area to address is the level of skills of the workforce. A variety of solutions have been proposed such as boosting STEM subjects, improving management training and improving the status and quality of vocational training. Technical qualifications have traditionally been seen as inferior to the more academic A’levels and degrees and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, intended to increase the number of apprenticeships, coincided with a decline in their number. However the most recent data suggests that this fall is being reversed as employers become more familiar with the new scheme. With a likely decline in the number of skilled migrants entering the UK from the EU, this area will be key if the UK economy is to prosper over the next decades.