Britain's economic growth will be limited to just 1% in the longer term as higher government spending, dwindling North Sea oil stocks and an ageing population all take their toll on the country's potential output, a group of economists has warned.
Tempering the recent spate of upbeat news on the UK and chancellor George Osborne's assertion that the economy has "turned a corner", a new paper predicts a post-crisis era of sluggish growth.
The long-term, sustainable growth rate in the UK may be only 1%, compared with the 2.5% that the Treasury thought standard from the 1980s to the 2000s, according to a discussion paper for free-market thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). "Until 2008 the UK had got used to our economy doubling in size every 25 years: unless action is taken it will now only double in size every 70 years," says the group of economists, which includes former Treasury adviser and UK Independence Party candidate Tim Congdon, and Andrew Lilico, the managing director of Europe Economics, an economics consultancy.
They highlight the weakest recovery in "industrial history" and blame a lack of growth for the government's deficit reduction plan being off target.
Commenting on the analysis, the IEA's editorial director, Philip Booth, said: "People shouldn't get too excited about better growth figures and recent forecasts from groups such as the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. We still have a long way to go before we recover the loss of output from the 2008 crash. Furthermore, the medium-term prospects for growth do not look healthy unless the government determinedly reduces government spending and regulation."
Following a string of positive indicators on the fledgling UK recovery, the OECD has lifted its forecast for the country's economic growth in 2013. The upgrade to projected growth of 1.5% this year came after stronger-than-expected growth of 0.7% in the second quarter, falling unemployment, and survey evidence suggesting the strongest growth in manufacturing output for almost two decades.
But the economists writing in the IEA paper painted a gloomier current economic picture, noting that five years on from the start of the financial crisis in 2008, GDP is still 3% below its peak. "That is unprecedented in 170 years of shocks that have hit the UK economy since industrialisation," sais the paper, "Will flat-lining become normal?"
Predicting sluggish growth rates, the IEA authors blame higher government spending and tax as a proportion of GDP, more regulation of energy and financial services, the depletion of North Sea oil, higher debt levels for government, business and households relative to GDP. They also note demographic pressures from an ageing population as well as the effects of "low-productivity immigrant workers being added to the working population", though the IEA stressed this was an analysis of the impact of much of the UK's immigrant labour being relatively unskilled, not an argument against immigration.
The paper advocates "bold" reforms if the UK wants to get back to sustainable growth rates of around 2% or more over the long run, including: the rolling back of government activity and influence; the regeneration of affordable credit channels to unencumbered households and businesses; and the implementation of radical supply-side measures.
Booth added: "Britain's growth problem is a productivity problem and not a problem caused by insufficient government borrowing. The government should take note. The solutions lie in its hands."
The comments from the free-market thinktank contrast with remarks from the leader of the UK's trade union movement, Frances O'Grady, on Monday. In her first speech to the annual congress as TUC general secretary, O'Grady called for the implementation of a political action plan to stimulate growth, paid for by taxing the rich, whose wealth had increased dramatically in the past few years.
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