THE BLOG

Recovery? It Ain't Necessarily so.

16/01/2014 11:01 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 09:59 GMT

How hard it is not to get swept along by the euphoria greeting every fragile indicator that the economy is picking up steam again. But is it?

Aside from an almost disturbing growth in house prices, supported largely by Government underpinning and a base interest rate so low it almost reaches the ground, evidence is patchy.

London and the South-East are certainly doing well. This is the heartland of the financial services sector. But there is far less growth in the manufacturing and technology base which is fundamental to a balanced sustainable economy.

When interest rates go up, which will probably be either this year or next, many households will hit money problems, as will a large number of retailers.

This matters because Plan A, as ever, seems to be a willingness by politicians and regulators to stoke a consumer-led recovery, which is a polite way of referring to a credit card and consumption binge, the sort that always end up with the country being sick.

We might blame Government short-termisn and the driving demands of the electoral cycle, which promises us a festival of balloting and political expediency over the next 18 months: European elections, the Scottish independence referendum and then a General Election.

But whatever the cause, one of the results is a lack of long-term investment in education, which will hamper prospects for young people however well they do individually at school. This is already starting to be picked up by impartial international research. The country needs a generally well-educated workforce, not just some of them educated, to ensure inward investment.

In addition, the lack of spending on infrastructure, manufacturing and technology, especially outside London, is depressing; a grim harbinger of a future where the UK is less sure-footed on the world economic stage.

There is also a sense that what binds us is weaker with a widening gap between 'haves' and 'have nots'; between South and North; between those who can own a home and a generation for whom this looks an impossible dream. Politicians speak of One Nation, but it is easier to see two. Relative wealth and stability on one side of the fence, poverty and job insecurity on the other.

There are no quick fixes, of course, and we are way beyond the blame game stage. But much must be done to secure a decent recovery rather than one that just hobbles along.

High on the to-do list should be infrastructure investment in places other than London. This would provide jobs for people who will then pay taxes and spend because they actually have money, not just of the borrowed kind. And it would also ultimately boost productivity.

We must invest more in teaching languages, science and engineering. A priority should be to improve the links between schools and businesses, currently often strangers to each other.

It remains extraordinarily difficult for many women to juggle work and children, particularly with child care costs rising to record levels. There need to be more before and after school clubs and holiday courses. This would free up the time and energy of a significant portion of the workforce, thereby helping everyone and the wider economy.

Business and professional success will depend a great deal on innovation and global thinking. The weight of regulations bearing down from Brussels and the Government is not always good news for the advising classes because it replaces options with rules. What advisers will need to be offering to flourish is sound, original business guidance.

But it is not all gloom. There is plenty to be optimistic about, too. We have relatively low tax rates, a business-friendly culture, a language and a capital that is a global beacon for money. It is just that the recovery is not yet certain, however much we may wish it so.