John Redwood's Diary
Incisive and topical campaigns and commentary on today's issues and tomorrow's problems

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A coiled spring?

The Bank of England Chief Economist has chosen a metaphor to reassure us about the economic future. I never mind a bit of optimism but I trust it will  not  deter policy makers from offering more assistance to the economy. He argues that because many people who have kept their jobs and decent earnings have been saving over the last year they will soon rush out and spend their savings once lockdowns are eased. The economy is  a coiled spring, about to spring into life as soon as the controls are eased. I daresay there is some pent up demand for leisure and hospitality when the all clear is sounded.

The figures do indeed show that overall savings are up, but that conceals big differences in¬† experiences of people,¬† There are people like the Bank’s senior employees on good salaries that have continued to be paid in full¬† during lockdown who have¬† saved. They have been unable to spend money on foreign holidays, trips to cultural and sporting events and good meals out in restaurants in the way they used to. They have probably¬† allowed some cash to build in their accounts. There are also people who have lost their job and seen their income fall as they go onto benefit. There are people who are furloughed or working only some of the time given the lockdown restrictions whose income has been impaired. Many in hospitality and entertainment and many self employed and small¬† businesses have suffered financially. It is most important they are offered continuing assistance until lockdowns have ended and they are able to earn their¬† full living again. Families have had to spend more on utilities, food and other essentials at home as they and their families work and learn at home which means many have not been able to save.

I expect when they are able to people on decent incomes who have saved a bit will want to book a meal out or s staycation at a hotel. They will want to book events again as soon as that is allowed. The problem for the hospitality and leisure industries is they will not get back the lost cash from cancelled business over the last year. When you return to a favoured local cafe you do  not buy two lunches for yourself, you just  buy the one now, not the one that was cancelled  by  lockdown. If you decide this year you can celebrate your birthday at a local restaurant, you do not pay for the celebration last year they had to cancel. Some hotels and entertainment venues  have been holding cash from customers who missed out on their previous bookings. They will have to supply service with  no new cash from such customers. There could be a bonus for the UK if overseas travel is still restricted or problematic in that more people may take a holiday in the UK, though there will be in all probability be a  continuing loss of foreign visitors.

So I agree there will be a recovery, and there are opportunities out there were resilient businesses. I think the authorities should also remember this has been a tough time for many self employed and small business people. it does not all snap back quickly when controls are eased. I want to see a budget for recovery, jobs and the self employed. We need their flexibility, and some of them have not been treated well over the lockdowns.

Power cuts and cheap energy

I am writing again to the new Secretary of State at the Business Department about our energy situation. I am asking him to reassert the priority of ensuring sufficient supply in the UK for our needs. We have become too reliant on imported electricity from the continent. They are embarking on closures of many nuclear stations and coal stations, are becoming more and more dependent on Russian gas, and may in the future have less surplus to send us. We can neither rely on their power being  green enough nor always available for our needs. I also wish him to reconsider the issue of affordability. To tackle fuel poverty cheaper power is a big help. To attract and retain industry at home, a plentiful supply of good value electricity is essential. The importance of reliable supplies has just been underlined by the substantial outages in Texas at a time of very cold and snow filled weather.

It is important not to have the wrong policy for the sake of a mistaken way of calculating the carbon results of our actions. If we only count the carbon dioxide emitted by industry in the UK, and not the carbon from all the factories abroad making products to sell us, we will develop a policy which positively encourages the deindustrialisation of the UK. Many goods made in China are made using substantial quantities of gas and coal for direct fuel and to generate the electrical power also needed by the factories. It is false accounting to ignore all that but to penalise UK producers for using fossil fuels.

The UK may well be able to generate much more power from renewables. The government should be keen to encourage more capacity to be installed by organising the relevant auctions and putting in place the necessary policies. As it has big ambitions for electric cars and heating it needs to plan for a huge expansion of generation, as well as for the replacement of the ageing fleet of nuclear stations that are about to be retired. More biomass based on UK wood would be an option, as it generates reliable power. More water power from new  barrages and from tidal interventions would be predictable. With the right auctions and rules it would be possible to strengthen our capacity and provide some competitive pressures on prices.

Making cars green means closing engine plants

The decision of most governments and the world Climate Change conferences to go for electric cars unleashes a juggernaut of change on a shaken motor industry. Sales of new diesels and even of petrol engined vehicles have plunged. Potential customers have often decided to hold on to the vehicles they already have, to see what is going to happen to car fuel taxation, to subsidies for new electric vehicles, and to taxes and regulations on the use of diesels and petrol cars before committing to a new product. The wary who might like a new diesel or petrol  vehicle worry lest in a few years time they are blocked from going where they wish, given the way German cities for example are already blocking older vehicles from entry. What will happen to second hand values when we reach the point of a ban on the sale of all new diesel and petrol cars? Some fear a fall, others think they might paradoxically go up as people chose to buy a second hand one in the absence of a new one.

It is true that lockdown last year hit output and sales badly, but it would be wrong to think all the fall in  diesel sales was temporary. There was a  trend developing against new diesels before the pandemic hit, which will continue given policy as lockdown ends. The car industry has accepted, even welcomed the transition to electric.  It will be costly, disruptive and difficult for those involved. The industry has preferred to talk about other far lesser issues or more temporary concerns and ignore the structural imperatives that should preoccupy it.

The UK government needs to be engaged and concerned about the UK car industry. The UK with some government encouragement and help built itself a great position in diesel engine technology and output. Ford changed Dagenham from car assembly to an engine production plant. BMW put in a great automated engine plant at Hams Hall Birmingham. Jaguar Land Rover spent a lot of money with government help on a brand new engine facility at Wolverhampton. Toyota put in an important engine factory on Deeside.  The UK helped design and perfect the new clean diesels with practically no particulate material coming out of the exhaust. All these plants make engines which the government wishes to retire by 2030 at the latest, with encouragement to people not to buy such engines from well before that date.  These factories cannot make the big batteries that form the core of the electric vehicle power unit, nor can they turn out the electric motors without stripping out all existing equipment and starting again.

If the UK is to keep motor manufacturing at home it needs to support and encourage large scale battery production and new factories for new electric models. The problem both the government and the industry have is they need to put in all this electric capacity before there are enough customers to buy the vehicles. Jaguar Land Rover shows the problem. Their buyers still want to buy the petrol and diesel product. As they transition to an all electric line up they have decided to go  more up market, losing the better off and concentrating on the rich who can afford to pay many tens of thousands for a single car . This will probably mean much less volume. If they end up closing or greatly shrinking  the Wolverhampton engine works and Castle Bromwich assembly works, favouring more overseas production, they will also lose more traditional UK buyers of their product who like the Britishness of the brand.

Buying from the EU

Eskenzi PR and Marketing put out a press release yesterday reporting a sampled survey of 1000 people. They said that one third of those asked had stopped buying EU goods. Reasons given included extra costs and delays in  getting the goods into the UK and an unwillingness to buy EU goods given the attitude of the EU to trade with us in recent months.

I would be interested to know whether your experiences bears out this survey. Does it worry you? Do you yourself seek substitutes for EU products?

It is curious if true that the EU is trying to impede exports to us as well as seeking to make our exports to them difficult. The UK has made clear it was not going to impose new barriers at our ports to get in  the way of the substantial volume of imports from the EU that we have accepted, and is working with a grace period at our borders. Despite this there are reports of surcharges on card transactions and postal delays. It is also true that some continental websites have failed to collect UK VAT as required leading to an extra bill for the UK consumer who expected VAT to be included in the pricing,

I myself have long followed a policy of buying UK food items wherever possible, to cut the food miles and to back UK fishing and farming. My second choice is to import from a developing country who are in more need of the trade and who have warmer  climates offering products we cannot grow here.

Going for growth

I have explained before that the U.K. calculates real GDP differently from many other countries. It adjusts the cost of public services like health and education for real output where others just rely on money spent. The U.K. reported correctly a sharp fall in output in education when all the schools were closed and a substantial fall in health output when elective and non urgent activity was cancelled to leave more capacity for CV19 cases. Both services recorded sharp falls in productivity as a result.

If we look at nominal GDP figures based on spending the U.K. economy had a relatively small fall of just 2.2%. This was less than Germany, France, Spain and Italy though a bit more than the USA at minus 1.2%.

The big debate now is how do we get back the  lost real output and  reverse the decline in Nominal GDP. Some are briefing that the U.K. needs to return to austerity with tax rises to cut the state deficit. This would be a bad idea, leading to a larger state deficit than a policy centred on going for growth and recovery. As the figures reveal there has been a big transfer of spending from private to public sector as the state has tried to make up for the inability of millions  of people and hundreds of thousands of businesses to earn their own living thanks to the closures and social distancing imposed  to combat the virus. The way to boost real GDP and to cut the deficit is to allow many more people and firms to supply goods and services, boosting output  and tax revenue at the same time.

What we need is to expand output capacity. That needs keeping and reviving as many of the businesses as possible that we had before lock down. It also requires a positive environment for the  self employed and small business to invest cash and effort to  meet more of the new demands of the post CV19 world. The state needs to rebuild its service output in health and education as quickly as possible which will make our real numbers look more like others. This is a time when lower tax rates will boost output and investment and cut the deficit by more than attempting to lower it with tax rises.

The worry is too much capacity amongst the self employed and small businesses will be lost as they grapple with up to a year of lost turnover and revenue and as they work out how to pay back the loans they have taken on. There remains a number of issues for government and Parliament to help work out over liability for past rents, Business rates, and the other costs of keeping a business which cannot trade. In future posts I will look at more of the opportunities for the UK to expand its capacity as we emerge from lockdown.

Treatments for CV 19

It was good to hear the Secretary of  State for Health on Friday say a bit more about treatments, and express some optimism that this year should see approval for treatments for CV 19 which make it much less likely someone will die or have a bad version of the disease. The UK is currently conducting 96 trials of drugs and 9 trials of other vaccines. Worldwide there are reported trials of 700 drugs that may help with treating CV 19, with a total of 2607 clinical trials running for the drugs and vaccines. The USA alone is currently organising 555 clinical trials for CV 19 treatments and vaccines.

I have been long advocating the UK puts resource into these important efforts.  Without medical training, I do not know which if any of these possible treatments can do good. It must be  worth trialling them to find out.

So far the UK has approved dexamethasone, remdesivir and tocilizumab as options for doctors to prescribe where they think they are appropriate. There are a number of other treatments used elsewhere, and we await progress with further trials here for those. There have been strong arguments over Vitamin D, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin in particular, with disagreements about the conditions for some past trials and strong views of whether these might be effective or¬† not. All¬† possible medical options should be fairly and promptly assessed. I hope the government’s new enthusiasm to share some more information and to express some optimism is a good sign that the medics do now feel treatments from adapted existing drugs and from new drugs can make an important contribution to lessening the suffering from this disease. I will follow up with some more questions to the government.

UK GDP – careful with the numbers

The poor UK GDP figures for 2020 are  not comparable with many other countries. As I explained on 12 August on this site, the UK statisticians reported a large fall in health output with the big drop off in non CV 19 work, and a big fall in education output with the closure of schools from the second quarter of the year. Other countries with large state sectors in education and health report the cost rather than the output, so they do not show any decline in these large areas of activity.

I agree with the UK statisticians that GDP should be based on output. It is a pity other countries do not use the same basis. If we included all the UK spending instead of output in the state sector then the UK had a relatively good GDP performance last year compared to other European countries.

The Health White Paper

This week the government published “Working together to improve health and social care”, a White Paper sketching proposals for reorganisation of the NHS and the wider care sector.

It set out three aims.

1, Better health and wellbeing for all

2. Better quality health service for all individuals

3. A sustainable use of NHS resources.

I have  no problems with these very general aims. 2 and 3 should be the main drivers of NHS care, whilst 1 of course will entail individuals and the private sector to continue to apply  our energies to the task which is so wide ranging.

The main reorganisation entails creating two new bodies in each local government area. The first will be an Integrated Care System  ( ICS )  NHS body to control, procure  and direct local NHS services and to supervise capital budgets of the local NHS Trusts. The second will be an Integrated Care System Partnership to work with local government and presumably with private sector care providers to ensure good services and relevant procurement.

The White Paper envisages removing some of the competition provisions in current health regulations, to take away powers to control trust mergers, and to limit competitive tendering. They wish to go over to a more collaborative model. NHS England will be merged with Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority. The Clinical Commissioning groups are absorbed by the new ICS bodies.

I need to know more about how joint working will take place between Councils and the NHS under these arrangements. I also want more detail over what additional powers the NHS will have over private sector care providers, and how if at all the relationship between  care homes and the NHS will alter.

As I consider my response more fully I would  be interested in any comments.

The state of the pandemic

The world figures show accumulated cases of 107m  or 1.3% of the world population with deaths at 2.365 million or 0.03%.  These figures are by nature of variable quality, depending on how much testing was done throughout in each country, and subject to variations in definitions. There is the perennial issue of death with covid or death definitely from covid, In some places people will have died at home and not been tested. In other  cases there will be tests with false positives.  They are nonetheless important figures and invite come comparisons, subject to analysis of how they were collected in each country, how much reliable testing took place and how deaths were certified.

The figures show that the Europeans  and Americans have suffered more than the rest of the world. The USA has had a very high caseload, at 8.4% of the population compared to the UK at 5.8%, Portugal at 7.6% and Germany at 2.75%. Belgium has had the  worst death rate apart from a few small countries at 0.186%, with the UK and Italy also quite high by world standards. The USA at 0.1456% shows that it has a better recovery rate from its  high infection  levels. India has only had a case rate of 0.78% and a death rate of 0.01%.

Case numbers have been higher in the advanced world and have been higher in winter than in summer. Clearly high levels of international travel can introduce a community to more variants and cases of the virus, and large cities like London, New York and  Paris see spread  from more social contacts using mass transit systems and enjoyment of the social facilities of hospitality, leisure and entertainment which attract more people there. Asian countries in general have fared better that Europe or the Americas. Could there be something in the diet, or in past exposure to Asian flu types which has given Asian populations  better resilience to the disease? Did they handle test and trace better than the Europeans?

It would be good to have more commentary from experts on how and why, for example,  Taiwan had practically no deaths from  the virus and was able to get her economy back and running fully, so GDP is now higher than a year ago. Why has Germany done so much better than Italy or Spain? How does the USA manage cases of the virus to achieve a lower death rate as a proportion of cases? Is it partly that the USA tests more and so identifies more mild or otherwise invisible cases of the virus? Is it a greater range of approved medicines and treatments?

This week I was pleased to be sent an update  by Ministers on all the tests underway in the UK of existing drugs and treatments. It will be good to see more results soon, as a wider range of treatment options would probably help doctors and their patients.

 

My speech during the debate on Local Government Finance (England), 10 February 2021

I thank the Government for their generous assistance to councils to help us through the pandemic crisis. My constituency is served by West Berkshire Council and Wokingham District Council‚ÄĒboth are unitaries. They certainly needed money to assist with the extra costs that covid-19 has caused, and there was a scheme, the pressures grant, to do that. The councils certainly needed assistance to deal with losses of tax revenues, and there was a scheme to reimburse 75% of lost tax revenues during these extraordinary times of business closures and business stress.

There were clearly difficulties with shortfalls on sales, fees and charges, and again a scheme was introduced ‚ÄĒI am pleased to see today that that is being extended for another quarter, because it looks as though there still will be an overhang into the second quarter of this calendar year. I am particularly pleased that there is additional assistance to allow councils to be sympathetic to people who are struggling to pay their council tax. The one little niggle that Wokingham has still suffered from is that where the council has brought in private sector management for a leisure sector, there can be difficulties with reimbursement for lost revenues. I would like to see further progress in sorting that out.

In the past, both West Berkshire Council and Wokingham Borough Council have suffered from pretty tight, or low, social care grants, and I am pleased to see a reasonable increase in social care grant going through for the next year. I urge Ministers to continue to look at that grant, because there is growth in demand and need, and we want high standards of care for people who require assistance. Certain councils, particularly the two serving my constituency, which were right at the bottom of the pack in terms of the amount of grant in relation to population, needed some tweaking of the sums. It is a very difficult situation. It is as costly looking after the elderly or children in Wokingham and west Berkshire as it is in the rest of the country, so we need at least as much, proportionately, as other places. We have often suffered from that.

I want to reinforce the Secretary of State’s important message about the role that councils can and should play in getting the country back to work and, in particular, in revitalising, refreshing and renewing our town centres, our village shopping areas and some of the shopping centres in which councils are engaged or have a stake. It is true that councils are very important agents in setting the tone, providing the regulations, sorting out the planning, and sometimes, as co-owners or landlords, creating the right kinds of spaces in our town centres and facilitating or providing the right environment for a return to vibrant life.

Let us be in no doubt: this is going to be a big ask and a difficult task, because the covid crisis and the resulting closures have accelerated a number of trends that were already under way. There will be more online shopping relative to shopping in shops, even after we get some return to normal and people can get out more and more shops can open. People will need to be tempted back to the restaurants and the cafés. We will need to work carefully with the businesses that own and run the shops and manage the cafés and restaurants to make sure that government, where it can, assists them and allows for the adaptation and development of town and village centres so that they can flourish again, with probably a different mix of services and businesses from that which preceded the covid crisis.

For example, as councils are usually the highways authority and they control access to town or village centres, surely the first thing they need to do is to review that access. A lot of families are going to need the car for elderly people, for children or because of the distance they are from the town centre in order to get there in the first place. They may need the car because if they are buying too much shopping to carry easily, they will need the boot to take the shopping back home. We need to make sure that car access is permitted. That requires looking at junctions to smooth them and make them safer, but also to improve the safe flow of traffic. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State mention that there will be money for bridges, because quite often impediments to getting into towns are created by railway lines and rivers, and we may need more bridging capacity. I hope that the Government will look particularly at light-controlled junctions, because those with the wrong phasing can be clumsy and impede progress for people into town, city and village centres.

Councils often either own the parking provision or are important in making sure that it is adequate, and they sometimes regulate the car parks. I therefore hope that they will understand that in order to tempt people back into these centres to turn them back into the vibrant spaces we want, there may need to be a discount or a generous offer, certainly in the early days, to give people the idea that it is safe to go back into the town, that they are wanted there, and that they can then park for long enough. Increasingly, visits to our towns and shopping centres will not just be for be an hour or so to go and do a bit of quick shopping‚ÄĒpeople will want to sit down and have a coffee or lunch. They may want to take advantage of some of the services in the town centre, as well as actually buying physical goods. They may wish to enjoy the experience of lingering a bit longer in the shops, having been denied that for so long. I hope councils will look carefully at parking arrangements, and be generous.

I hope planning authorities will look carefully at flexibility so that owners, who may include the councils themselves, are allowed to carry out sensible plans for optimising the use of the building. The Secretary of State has been doing a lot of work on ensuring that planning restrictions and designations do not get in the way of sensible flexibility. Indeed, we will need plenty of flexibility and imagination, because a number of businesses that operated in town and city centres a year or more ago will not be available.

A great number of large chains of shops have gone through receivership or made major reductions, having come to the conclusion, one way or another, that they want fewer physical stores. Even if they have a good online offer, which will work with their favoured locations, we will see a lot of those chains retreat from high streets and shopping centres. I also fear that, wherever possible, a lot of small shops may need a friendly arm around them from the council and the Government, as otherwise we could lose a lot of capacity in the small shop area.

I trust that councils and the Government will work to make the situation as attractive as possible. A bit of money may need to be spent on beautifying towns and village centres, and ensuring they are in good order to welcome people back. Councils often have town or shopping centre managers, who need to be given backing in order to come up with imaginative solutions.

This huge task is in everybody‚Äôs interests, including shoppers, landlords, employees and the councils. Above all, councils need to help the Government to rebuild the tax base of our towns, cities and village centres, and ensure that there will be that flow of business revenue in future‚ÄĒnot just business rates, but the trading revenues that the national taxation system can collect and reroute to local government. Without prosperity there is not sufficient money for great public services, and councils must be part of the process through which that prosperity is rebuilt. I thank the Secretary of State for the help he has offered local councils. I urge him to please be generous on social care, and to do everything he can to promote the recovery we desperately need.