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June 11, 2020

Article by Douglas McWilliams for the Daily Mail – Targeted tax cuts, a boost for tech and 50 years to pay off our corona debt… one expert’s view on how to get Britain back to work

View the full article here


The economy has started to recover from the depths that it plumbed during the lockdown.


But according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Britain still faces the deepest recession in the developed world this year.


And it looks likely that, after a bounce as restrictions are eased, we may then be stuck for a while at around 85-90 per cent of normal production.


So what can be done to limit the pain? I believe we need to take bold steps, including:

  • Stamp duty holiday for home-buyers
  • Measures to stop zombie firms all going bust at once
  • 10 per cent pay reduction for non-essential public sector staff
  • Cut VAT temporarily
  • Allow talented techies to come to Britain freely after Brexit
  • Pay off the Government’s pandemic debts over 50 years


Recovery will be faster and easier if we accept economic life may never return to what we considered normal.


Tourism – around a tenth of national income – won’t come back quickly. Social distancing will constrain the hospitality industry, including the pubs and restaurants we used to enjoy.


And once shops are open, people worried about their jobs and salaries are unlikely to spend on the scale that they once managed.


Meeting John Lewis boss Dame Sharon White yesterday ahead of her stores reopening, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said it was ‘very important’ that shoppers ‘have the confidence to know that they can go out again in safety’.


Commercial property values are likely to be shattered as so many staff work from home. A lot of development will be put on hold. The days of thousands of people huddling in a mega-office may be over.


But there are plenty of growth sectors. Takeaway food is moving upmarket, online shopping could grow faster were it not for lack of delivery capacity, and working from home will surely give rise to the development of new apps.


Transport will need to be reconfigured with opportunities, for instance, for e-bikes, which are practical, and this season’s craze.


Keep firms afloat 


As the old Labour Chancellor Denis Healey used to remind us: ‘When you are in a hole, the first thing is to stop digging.’


Any recovery package has to limit the number of firms going bust. Quite a few are now fundamentally uneconomic and probably can’t survive. But they need to be managed carefully so that they don’t all go bust at once.


Others have taken a hit to their cashflow, but remain viable. This group needs temporary cash to tide them over.


As well as loans, the Government could also take share stakes, as could asset managers and other big investors.


A third group, particularly in the tech sector, are innovators about to take off – and may need early access to development capital.


Saving jobs


At worst, we could have 6m unemployed. On a 90 per cent economy there will be more than 3m on the dole, which would depress demand and lead to considerable hardship.


The Chancellor will need to encourage firms to keep as many people in work as they can.


To do this he will have to keep a type of furlough for at least the next year but adjust it to encourage part-time work rather than paying people not to work at all.


Sunak has started down this path, which will be cheaper than paying out hugely increased amounts of unemployment benefit.


Targeted tax cuts


People may be reluctant to spend so it would make sense to have a temporary VAT cut to encourage them.


If it has a positive effect on spending, the extra income tax and national insurance will make up most of the VAT revenue lost.House values are likely to take a further bashing.


Lower prices make housing more affordable, but a sharp fall will leave many with negative equity and hit confidence.


A temporary holiday on stamp duty is a good idea. As with the cut in VAT, the increase in activity could more than make up for the lost tax revenue.


Boost for tech


The real way to get the economy growing is to reinvigorate the British tech sector. Five years ago I wrote the book The Flat White Economy about how it bailed us out after the financial crisis.


We need the sector again to get the economy going – to rekindle the new apps and services that will thrive in the post-lockdown.


Talented migrants are the lifeblood of the creative economy. Any Brexit deal should not stop them coming in.


Local governments need to create the environment for creative digital to thrive with attractive culture, cheap housing and good education.


50 years to pay


And, of course, we must put public finances on a more even keel. Even the most extreme socialist wouldn’t pretend a government can borrow more than £60billion every month as it did in April.


With the packages necessary to kickstart the economy, it will be hard to get borrowing much below £400billion this year.


I would cut non-essential public sector pay by 10 per cent to match private sector cuts, and use some of that to provide tax incentives to spend and invest. But that is probably too extreme to be politically acceptable.


The trick with public borrowing is not to turn it off too soon. We should phase down towards budget balance over at least a decade.


But once we have restrained new borrowing we will still be left with a debt mountain.


It took a century to pay the debts from the Napoleonic Wars. And we only paid off the debts of World War Two through creating an almighty inflation that devalued what the Government owed.


We should take a 50-year approach to public debt so as not to place too much of a burden on the next generation.


  • Professor Doug McWilliams is deputy chairman of the Centre for Economics and Business Research

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