A ‘new’ Industrial Strategy

The UK economy is at a crossroads.  A turning point for growth, inflation and employment is apparent in recent data.  The BREXIT vote might have been the trigger for the change of mood because it adds a new layer of uncertainty but the economy was already going that way.  Moreover, the fundamental imbalances of the UK economy – exhibited by huge trade and fiscal deficits, now ineffective monetary policy and poor comparative productivity – have yet to be addressed – whether we voted in or out of Europe.

The ‘new world’ of external relationships, as evidenced by the 18% drop in sterling since July, implies an adjustment of costs (up) and investment (down) that will probably mean lower growth and higher inflation than would otherwise have occurred over the next few years.  Further out, the UK business sector has the ability and scope to mitigate such negative effects and, indeed, more than offset any adverse changes.  British firms and people are still inventive, innovative, skilled, entrepreneurial and competitive.  With change comes opportunity.  The big question is whether the policy regimes adopted over the next few years facilitate that process of market-led adjustment.

In the UK Autumn Statement, next month, it is expected that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will promote a new Industrial Strategy.  It is tempting to say that there is nothing new in the world of sub-national development.  A re-hash of established intervention strategies is probable, which may be no bad thing.

It is likely that the SW LEPs will be tasked to support major national investments (including power stations, runways and railways) through their activities towards future growth deals, enterprise zones and/or wider business support.  The target, as always, will be more productivity and export-led growth backed by a strong business voice.

We await the government’s ideas with both trepidation and expectation.  We hope the LEPs and their development partners are ready for the task ahead.  We will blog on the ‘new’ strategy after November 23rd, assuming enough details about the new policy approach are forthcoming.

By then, we will have a new US president-in-waiting.  With this and BREXIT dominating the macro world, these are exciting times for analysts of the regional economy and the world of local development.



The Economy – After BREXIT


On 23rd June, the UK electorate voted to ‘leave’ the EU (BREXIT). The immediate economic consequence was a collapse in Sterling, making exports cheaper and imports dearer. Over time, this might help growth and add to inflation. However, the referendum result increased uncertainty about the economic outlook and may reduce net new investment, output and jobs in the months ahead and beyond.

More firms and investors now seem less confident about the outlook for growth. The survey evidence and the forecast consensus has shifted downwards, acknowledging that there is some risk of negative real GDP growth, higher inflation and lower employment.

In addition, upheaval within the leading UK political parties, the lack of terms/a plan to smooth the UK approach to BREXIT, and concerns over the forthcoming presidential election in the United States all encourage a ‘wait and see’ attitude amongst key businesses.

With forward indicators weakening, the economy is still constrained by fundamental weaknesses: low productivity growth and competitiveness (as shown by persistently large trade deficits). For the foreseeable future, uncertainty over BREXIT will not improve these factors.

Latest evidence

  Annual Quarterly Monthly
Real GDP (%ch, yoy) +2.2 (2015) +2.2 (Q2) n.a.
CPI inflation (%ch, yoy) 0.0 (2015) +0.4 (Q2) +0.5 (Jun)
LFS unemployment (%) 5.4 (2015) 5.1 (Q1) 4.9 (Mar-May)
Trade deficit* (£bn) -36.6 (2015) -12.4 (Q1) -2.3 (May)
Base rate (%) 0.5  (2015) 0.5  (Q2) 0.5  (Jul)

Source: ONS   * goods and services

Growth in the UK economy was fairly modest and flat through the first half of 2016. Despite global/national political and economic uncertainty, as the table above indicates, real growth was maintained close to trend (just over 2% year-on-year), inflation remained well below the 2% per annum policy target (though it edged a little higher) and the drop in unemployment may have started to flatten out (at about 5%). The net trade deficit was still enormous and the loose money and austere fiscal policy stance was largely unchanged. Productivity growth remains too low for sustained and sustainable UK growth.

If real GDP growth now slips below 2% per annum, employment growth will ease or reverse and little or no improvement in productivity can be envisaged. Meanwhile, the recent (roughly 9%) drop in Sterling will boost future inflation. The economic outlook, especially in the face of having to unwind or replace trade, regulation and other business-facing agreements within the EU and other partners, has deteriorated.

Local Economy & Development

The latest purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for SW England shows SW output fairly good but employment slipping back in June. These figures were recorded “pre-BREXIT”. Moreover, the SW regional economy tended to soften through the first half of 2016.

For the PMI series, apart from momentum over time, the crucial benchmark is whether the indices are above or below 50. The former indicates growth and the latter stagnation. It will be interesting to see, in response to BREXIT, whether the next reading for SW PMI output, (to be issued mid-August), will edge below the 50-benchmark, as the UK average did in July and the SW employment index already had done in June. Thereafter, the question is whether negative “BREXIT effects” persist.

Other surveys have shown similar recent trends. For example, the British Chamber of Commerce Survey for the latest quarter pointed to “sub-par UK economic growth even prior to the EU-referendum”. With regard to the future outlook, the mood has been generally more cautious than it was, with many sectors from manufacturing, through retailing and car sales, to property and other services declaring a sudden loss of business momentum after the referendum. What little evidence we have suggests there was an immediate drop in household spending, affecting retailing, tourism and leisure locally; a decline in property movements – affecting commercial and housing sales; and a continuation of caution with respect to business investment.  We do not know whether these were temporary or persistent effects.

In response to these developments, and the aggravated risks and eventual opportunities that lie ahead, the development question is how businesses and the various public agents mitigate any negative impacts. The significant drop in sterling will help some (exporters) but not all (importers and exporters dependent on imports of components and materials). In time, the likely increase in a range of input, factory and final prices will affect some supply chains and household budgets. Moreover, there is a fear that the continuing banking malaise (with share values down sharply from already low levels) may dampen the flow of credit – a key ingredient for maintaining growth.

The Bank of England stands ready to support the financial system (e.g. by relaxing banking capital requirements, lowering base rates, and issuing more quantitative easing). It believes the banking and insurance sectors are much more resilient to shocks than they were in 2008. Also, the new “May-Hammond” Treasury has indicated that it may be more willing to borrow and spend than its predecessor. Its ‘new’ industrial/EU-funding policies, however, are far from clear, (especially as the Business Department is being reformed).

Economic Outlook

According to the latest consensus compiled by HM Treasury (see table below), growth will be very sluggish in the next 18 months. The average forecast is for growth rates well below trend in 2016 and 2017 whilst CPI inflation is now expected to exceed the target (2% per annum) during 2017 and unemployment to rise back above 5.5%.

According to these ‘experts’, the outlook has changed dramatically. Indeed, average forecasts for growth in 2017 slumped from 2.1% (June survey) to only 0.8% (July survey) after the BREXIT vote. Moreover, the current account and public debt positions are worse for 2016 and only expected to improve marginally in 2017. The Bank of England perspective (in its forthcoming August Inflation Report) is expected to show a similar warning about a deterioration in economic prospects.

BREXIT has induced a change in mood, with the consensus about economic prospects shifting markedly downwards in recent weeks. Indeed, the drop in forecasters’ expectations has gained real expression with the downgrading of UK debt by the major credit rating agencies, the drop in the value of UK banking and other stocks, and the Bank of England’s FPC recent highlighting of risks to the financial system.

UK Consensus Forecasts: July 2016

  2016 2017
Growth +1.6 +0.8
Inflation +1.3 +2.4
Unemployment 5.3 5.6
  2016/17 2017/18
Current Account (£bn) -103.1 -82.1
PSNB (£bn) 67.4 58.3

Source: HM Treasury

Some of the new negative sentiment may fade after the initial shock but the danger is that the process of extracting the UK from the EU will generate a series of economic and political ‘aftershocks’ to the markets and the real economy and this could deplete confidence at a fundamental level.

As we have written before (see previous posts), the economics of BREXIT are straightforward. In summary, the creation of economic barriers, borders or boundaries, whether real or psychological, always leads to an increase in costs. That increase in costs, exacerbated by broader uncertainty, stalls investment, reduces output and cuts employment compared with what otherwise might have occurred. Thereby, the outlook for productivity and trade deteriorates.

The resulting fall in business profits and household incomes means less revenue for the government, which requires further fiscal austerity unless the government is willing to borrow more and grow the public deficit. In turn, these factors reduce realised and potential economic activity and confidence. At the same time, as higher costs are pushed through the supply chain, more inflation is generated, which, if accompanied by higher state borrowing, means, at some point, higher interest rates – a further dampener on future domestic demand.

It is important to note that in all these economic linkages and trends, we refer to outcomes in net, macro terms. There will be companies and workers in particular sectors that will benefit from the countervailing forces that always occur within any process of economic adjustment. There will be individual ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The key observation, however, is that the net effect, for the economy as a whole and for the foreseeable future, is one of worsening growth prospects.

BREXIT will affect many Southern businesses and households. Some of these effects will be immediate and obvious; some will be postponed and insidious and some will not have noticeable impacts for several years. But, on average, in due course, less investment means less growth and lower living standards. We must not be distracted by one-off (good or bad) data releases or items of business news over the weeks and months ahead. The important thing is the change to performance potential, and its realisation, over the long run.

In the long run (after 2020), the economy may start to recover (assuming no major global ‘shocks’) from BREXIT.   In the very long term (perhaps, eight years plus), it may be back, or even beyond, where it might have been without BREXIT. The economy is a dynamic creature made up of millions of individual and group actors with diverse characteristics and behaviours. Uncertainty creates opportunity as well as fear. Human beings are inventive, innovative and entrepreneurial, especially as new generations emerge without the baggage of history. It is reasonable, therefore, to remain a long-term optimist about the economy.

For the near future, however, the prognosis is for a period/process of negative adjustment.

  • In the short run, this is likely to harm sectors dependent on current household and business spending first, though these effects may be temporary if incomes and employment hold up over the rest of 2016.
  • In the medium term, it will be the new trading adjustments that matter: 1) sterling depreciation helping exporters unless they are vulnerable to supply chain shifts caused by political uncertainty and higher import prices and 2) trade agreements and new tariff regimes for UK businesses active across the world. Both positive and negative effects are likely to ensue here.
  • In the long run, changes to corporate investment strategies will drive the impact. It is unlikely that global companies will see UK locations and facilities as favoured areas for investment to gain access to the wider European market. Importantly, it is changes at the margin that matter, specifically the potential for erosion of commitment to existing UK operations over time. Behavioural changes will gradually impact replacement and new investment demand. In a decade, the fear is that the next family of aerospace, motors and other engineering and electronics products and services go, at least partially, elsewhere, as trading costs and regulatory frameworks adjust to a new political reality

Analysis of current economic prospects makes regional development activity to boost the drivers of productivity even more vital. The development policy and delivery question is whether the negatives can be mitigated in terms of repairing or building local competitiveness over time. Even as the BREXIT storm rolls over us, we must prepare for better days.

BREXIT 3 – the decision

A small majority of UK voters have chosen to ‘leave’ the EU.  Now we will reap the economic deluge in terms of financial market shocks, lower investment and fewer jobs.  It will take a few years for the negotiations to assert some certainty back on the future path of trade and exchange.  It will take longer for the negative effects on inward investment to work themselves out.  The UK economy will be weaker than it otherwise would have been for up to a decade.  The SW economy will be poorer as key factories and facilities across the region are sidelined or lost, many household incomes are reduced and fiscal transfer resources are diminished.

The question, then, is how we respond to and mitigate these choices and negative effects.  The next Prime Minister, as well as negotiating with all our partners, has to instigate policies that will increase investment, raise productivity and drive development whilst dealing with the probable break up of the United Kingdom.  Hopefully, by 2025-30, we can look back and say “well, it was a painful adjustment but we did it and now the future looks bright again for England” (alone?).  Today, it’s hard to look ahead with confidence but the hard work starts now.

SW Gross Disposable Household Income in 2014

The annual release of sub-regional gross disposable household income (GDHI) data has just occurred.  The latest numbers are for 2014.  They show SW England generating £98.4bn of GDHI that year, up from £96.9bn in 2013: a modest increase of just 1.5%.  (Because CPI inflation was also 1.5% in 2014 that implies there was no real increase in household spending power.)  The annual growth range was from +4.1% in Swindon to -0.5% in Bournemouth and Poole.

The distribution of SW GDHI across the region, by LEP area, ranged from £29.8bn (30.3% of the SW total) in the Heart of the South West (HoSW = Devon and Somerset, including Plymouth and Torbay) to under £10bn (9.4%) in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (CIoS).  West of England (WoE = Bristol, Bath and NE Somerset, N Somerset and S Gloucestershire) contributed £20.1bn (20.4%) whilst the Gloucestershire, Swindon and Wiltshire, and Dorset (including Bournemouth and Poole) areas generated £11.8bn (12%), £13.1bn (13.3%) and £14.3bn (14.6%) respectively.

Turning to GDHI per head, in order to compare these areas better, puts Gloucestershire at the ‘top’ with £19,273 (7.3% above the UK average).  CIoS was at the bottom at £16,862 (-6.1% below).  HoSW was also below average (£17,579 or -2.1% below).  Dorset was second highest (£18,907, +5.3% below), then Swindon and Wiltshire (£18,818 or +4.8% below) and then WoE (£18,273, +1.7% below).  Again, in annual growth terms the range was from +3.3% in Swindon to -1.6% in Bournemouth and Poole.

Within these areas, it is striking how relatively ‘low’ the GDHI per head figures are for cities/urban areas and how relatively ‘high’ they are for county/rural areas.  For example, Bristol, Plymouth and Torbay all had GDHI per head readings more than £1,000 below the national average whereas Dorset county, Wiltshire County and non-Bristol WoE were all more than £1,000 above average.  Even in the more ‘balanced’ areas, such as Dorset and Wiltshire, the ‘county’ parts were above average whereas the urban parts were not.  (This is always in marked contrast to the sub-regional gross value added data which usually shows urban areas creating more output per head than rural areas: a reflection of commuting patterns and work/residence differences.

Roughly 70% of SW GDHI and GDHI per head comes from ‘compensation of employees‘.  This category grew by 2.9% in 2014, compared with 6.9% for property incomes received.

Regional GVA in 2014

In December, the ONS releases the gross value added (GVA – income based) and GVA per head data for the UK regions, devolved administrations and lower geographies. This provides our basic comparative measure of local economic performance.  It is a corner stone of most UK applied economic analysis below the national level. The table below summarises the new, local data for 2014.

Southern England 2014

2014 GVA


GVA per head (£) GVA per head (UK = 100)
Bournemouth & Poole 7941 23254 94.5
Rest of Dorset 8248 19719 80.1
Somerset 10641 19648 79.8
Plymouth 5195 19864 80.7
Torbay 2066 15354 63.1
Rest of Devon 15418 20146 81.8
Swindon 6551 30357 123.3
Rest of Wiltshire 9841 20369 82.7
Southampton 5782 23572 95.8
South Hampshire 11048 24568 99.8
Central Hampshire 14164 26479 107.6
Portsmouth 5381 25735 104.5
Isle of Wight 3071 22074 89.7

Source ONS

The new data confirms many of the descriptive characteristics that we already know about local southern economies. The relative performance of the regional economy seldom changes significantly over time.

  • Last year, was one of relatively good GVA growth, with averages for the UK as a whole of 3.6%), for SW England of 3.1% and for SE England of 2.8%.  Given negligible inflation, these are virtually real rates of growth.
  • Within southern England, north and east tends to perform ‘better’ than south and west. Also, urban areas tend to perform better than more rural areas.  This is normal, reflecting the workplace basis of the data, sector spatial characteristics and a typical concentration of high value economic activity in the more urban parts of any area.
  • Relative to the UK as a whole, southern GVA per head tends to be below average, but this reflects the effect of the ‘black hole’ that is Greater London on that average rater than any underlying weakness or fragility.

As well as providing new data, the ONS revises its numbers for previous years. This can change history quite markedly, although this time the revisions have, generally, been reasonably modest. Summarising the latest long-term series for GVA per head indices,

  • Relative performance has been fairly flat over the last two decades. The comparative scores have tended to sag a fraction.  The SE index tends towards 110 (10% above) versus the UK average whereas the SW index tends to 80 (20% below).
  • Generally, the historical series are remarkably consistent. It seems to be difficult to shift these fundamental measures of relative local economic performance over time, despite cyclical ‘booms and busts’ and profound structural changes to industry, technology and demographics.

A third aspect of the new local information is the sector breakdown by major industries.  The sector data for 2014 confirms that:

  • In aggregate terms, SW manufacturing and construction were only 11.9% and 6.8% of GVA respectively.
  • Amongst services, 17.9% of total SW GVA were distribution, 34.2% were financial and business, and 20.6% were mainly in the public sector.

GVA is our base indicator of economic performance. The latest figures show southern areas holding their own (within the regional economic league tables) and maintaining their industrial structure.  2014 was a good economic year.  There has been some loss of momentum in 2015.  Nonetheless, it would be a surprise if the relative score has moved much in aggregate terms and in terms of industrial structure over the last twelve months

The development community may wish and is tasked to shift its relative economic score over time. This means a relative improvement in measures such as GVA per head. This may be a worthy aspiration but it needs to be tempered by a healthy dose of realism. Without radical change in the economic fundamentals (including major investment in infrastructure, innovation and skills, competitiveness, and the wider capital base), the best that might be achieved is running to stand still.

Radical change means an emphasis on private sector productivity, engagement with markets and technologies, and a focus on the quality of our environmental and human capital.  In the years ahead, that would be a sound, strategic vision for growth of, and development in, the southern economies.


Autumn Statement – fortune favours the brave

In headline terms, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement/Comprehensive Spending Review surprised many commentators, from its withdrawal from cutting tax credits to its lower than expected percentage cuts in many departmental expenditure settlements.  Nevertheless, overall, it remained an austerity budget based on higher taxation and lower public spending.  It is a settlement that, if fully enacted, will, itself, tend to detract from economic growth over the next five years.  Some of the measures, however, will re-direct activity to the private sector and, in theory, might ‘crowd in’ more private activity.

These ideas should be evident in the macroeconomic forecasts published by the Office of Budget Responsibility at the same time as the statement.  In fact, the forecasts offered are remarkably flat.  If the OBR is right, we are in for a period of rather boring overall macro trends with subdued growth in output and investment, in inflation, and in employment and productivity, leading to a gradual improvement in the public finances (see table).

OBR Forecasts November 2016 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Real GDP (%ch pa) 2.4 2.4 2.5 2.4 2.3 2.3
Inflation (%ch pa) 0.1 1.0 1.8 1.9 2.0 2.0
Employment (%ch pa) 1.3 1.3 0.6 0.6 0.3 0.6
Productivity (%ch pa) 1.1 1.1 1.9 1.8 2.0 1.7
Investment (%ch pa) 6.1 7.4 7.1 7.0 6.6 4.5
Unemployment rate (%) 5.5 5.2 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.4
2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21
Deficit borrowing/GDP (%) 3.9 2.5 1.2 0.2 -0.5 -0.6
Debt/GDP (%) 82.5 81.7 79.9 77.3 74.3 71.3
Source: OBR

The more interesting facets of the announcements are micro in nature.  The local impacts of the devolution measures on governance and business rates, conformation of local development ‘growth deal’ funding, the creation of more enterprise zones, the infrastructure and house building proposals, and the buy-to-let stamp duty, apprenticeship levy and other taxes may have a profound effect on the way local economy’s develop over the next five years.  Although the central view is that this will not affect very much the underlying potential growth rate of the economy as a whole, there is plenty of cope for unforeseen consequences and distributional effects to be significant.

In SW England, we will be particularly intrigued to see how plans for devolution, (particularly the prospect of local government rationalisation in Dorset), and the new/extended enterprise zones at Dorset Green (Wareham), Bristol and Bath/Somer Valley, and Heart of the SW (Exeter and Bridgwater) will develop.  History suggests our expectations should be cautious … but, perhaps, fortune favours the brave.


ASHE 2015

Each year in November, the ONS releases local data on earnings for employees (not including the self-employed) across the country (ASHE – Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings).  This provides important benchmark data for studying our sub-national economies.

Overall, there was a small (nominal and real) increase in pay in 2015, with the UK averages reaching £426 median and £508 mean a week, respectively 1.9% and 1.3% higher than in 2014.  (The averages in this briefing report are a summary mixture of both full-time and part-time pay.)

The table below highlights the data just released for April 2015 across the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) areas of SW England and compares them with the English totals.  The first six columns relate to gross average weekly pay by residence and the rest the equivalent by workplace.  The first column in each section shows the jobs in the area covered by this survey in thousands.  The second and fourth columns show median and mean gross Average Weekly Earnings (AWE) respectively.  The third and fifth columns show the figures as indices relative to the SW total = 100.

In nearly every case, SW pay is less than the English average (which is pulled up by pay rates in London and the South East) and the gap between median and mean earnings (where the latter is pulled up by the comparatively few very high earners) is often less severe than elsewhere.  Unsurprisingly, workplace averages are higher than residence averages, reflecting both commuting patterns and business sector concentrations.

Overall, the latest figures suggest that the traditional differentials across SW England remain intact, with pay higher in the North and East than in the South and West.  The highest LEP averages (West of England) are about 8% above the regional average and the lowest (Cornwall) are about 15% below.  Even the LEP total, however, can be misleading.  There are significant differences within LEP areas too.  Generally, urban areas have higher pay than rural ones, both between and within the LEP areas – though there are exceptions (e.g. Torbay in Devon).  The highest pay averages are in Bristol and Swindon and the lowest in Devon (e.g. Torridge and North Devon).

Residence Jobs AWE median index AWE mean index Workplace Jobs AWE median index AWE mean index
West of England 489 435 108.7 502 107.2 West of England 532 422 108.1 492 108.3
Gloucestershire 260 426 106.4 509 108.6 Gloucestershire 255 417 106.7 477 104.9
Swindon & Wiltshire 282 424 106.1 504 107.6 Swindon & Wiltshire 255 412 105.3 485 106.8
Dorset 306 399 99.7 469 100.1 Dorset 303 386 98.8 447 98.3
Heart of the South West 667 376 94.0 432 92.1 Heart of the South West 633 375 96.0 424 93.4
Cornwall & Isles of Scilly 186 345 86.3 399 85.2 Cornwall & Isles of Scilly 164 332 84.9 377 83.0
South West England 2,188 400 100.0 469 100.0 South West England 2,142 391 100.0 455 100.0
England 21,112 430 107.6 516 110.1 England 21,406 430 110.0 516 113.4

Growth & Interest Rates

The SW purchasing managers’ indices (PMI) for October (just released) rebounded a bit from September’s lowish levels.  The UK recovery appears to be intact but it has slowed from the pace set earlier in the year.  Indeed, the PMI series peaked in January 2014 and they have tended to drop since then.  The latest output and employment balances were 54.1 and 52.6 respectively: the former was the eighth highest and the latter tenth highest (of 12), showing that the recovery is softer locally than in most UK regions and devolved administrations.  The slowdown is most evident in the weakness of new orders and business outstanding.

According to the Bank of England’s latest Inflation Report (November 2015), the softening of growth reflects international factors, especially slower growth in China, emerging markets and the EU.  These dampening effects come directly through physical trade but, more importantly, indirectly through financial exposures and markets: commodities, bonds and equity prices have all fallen in recent months.  Comparatively, the domestic economy is more robust, lead by some emergence of real incomes growth (+3%) and, at last, some positive change in productivity in Q2 2015 – although, so far, most of the recovery has been driven by an increase in hours.

Inflation remains about zero, largely reflecting the decrease in world import prices.  Core UK inflation is said to be more like 1% with wage increases starting to build price expectations.  The Bank says that interest rates will rise over time but, right now, it is signalling a further delay in the needed upward adjustment in base rates.  A return to ‘normal’ base interest rates of 4-5% is considered unlikely for many years.  An increase to a range of 2-3% would be welcome for normal economic working/incentives but is also probably more than two years away.

Inflation will start to rise as last year’s major drop in oil and other global prices fall out of the annual calculation.  This should mean an end to nearly 7 years of 0.5% base rates is imminent.  Central Bankers remain cautious, however, and there is a risk that policy increases come later and then have to be larger than might otherwise be necessary.  A slow rise to 1-1.5% over the next 12-18 months seems advisable but the resistance to action remains strong.  The danger is that tool little too late means more volatile adjustments … even renewed recession … in due course.

The recovery is less strong than it was.  The winter will probably see only modest growth.  SW businesses face a more difficult economy in 2016.


Local Labour Markets: Early 2015

Data from the Labour Force Survey, just released for the first quarter of 2015, showed a UK labour market that is buoyant and getting tighter, nationally and locally.  Moreover, UK average weekly earnings rose by 3.3% (year-on-year) in March: a higher rate of increase than we have seen for some time – some welcome news.

The headline numbers were: SW England – 81.1% economically active, 77.6% employment rate, 4.3% unemployment rate compared with UK averages – 77.9% economically active, 73.5% employment rate,  5.5% unemployment.

As usual, SW England, including Dorset, performed ‘better’ than the country as a whole with a higher employment rate than all other regions and a lower unemployment rate than anywhere else apart from the South East. (It must be noted, however, that, partly because local employment tends to contain a larger part-time element than elsewhere, SW average earnings can lag national averages.)

The Labour Force Survey does not provide local data as often as it does for the headline rates.  Each month, however, we get up-to-date claimant count rates at a local level. These provide a much narrower definition of unemployment which is not very useful for many aspects of detailed economic analysis.  But, as long as the two series do not diverge for long or significantly over time – (and when they do it is usually because of changes to the welfare regulations), they do allow us to make some simple, cross-sectional, local comparisons.

 The latest data on claimant counts shows UK and SW average rates respectively of 1.9% and 1.2% respectively in April.  Again, the SW performs ‘better’ than most places. Importantly, however, many parts of the region continued to do even better than this SW average.  LEP area claimant count rates were:  Cornwall and Isles of Scilly 1.3%, Dorset 1.0%, Gloucestershire 1.2%, Heart of the South West 1.2%, Swindon & Wiltshire 1.0%, and West of England 1.3%.
These relative rates reflect a basic truth: ‘urban’ areas have more recorded unemployment than ‘rural’ ones.  There are other local lessons: some of the very low rates exhibited reflect population demographics, including age distribution factors (such as retired and student ratios), income and financial patterns, including relative affluence within households, and behavioural characteristics (such as the local propensity to sign on) and part-time/flexible working patterns in key sectors (such as seasonal tourism).

Despite all these caveats in the fine detail, however, we can conclude, broadly, that the SW labour market is already quite tight.  As a result, if the recovery is to develop and growth is to be sustained and sustainable, we are going to have to see a marked increase in average productivity and/or bring in more labour from elsewhere, (with all that might mean for housing, congestion and other aspects of the economic development process).

Dorset & the southern LEPs

Having been appointed (part-time) as Professor in Regional Economic Development at Bournemouth University, I have been focussing recent analysis on Dorset and its nine closest neighbouring LEPs.  In terms of total GVA (£15.4bn) and GVA per head (£20,392), Dorset ranked eighth in 2013 (see table below).  The latter put Dorset’s performance 12.8 percentage points below the UK average.

LEP areas 2013 GVA (£bn) GVA per head (£) GVA (£bn) GVA per head (£)
Enterprise M3 47.8 28902 West of England 29.3 26820
Coast to Capital 45.0 22935 Swindon & Wiltshire 16.1 23219
Solent 36.4 23211 Dorset 15.4 20392
Thames Valley Berkshire 34.2 38918 Gloucestershire 14.1 23269
Heart of the South West 30.5 18098 Cornwall & Isles of Scilly 8.4 15403

Over time, Dorset has made modest progress in reducing this gap, which was 1.5 points wider in 2008 and 2.2 points wider in 1998.  Over both these periods, this is the third best performance amongst the ten local LEP areas – a credible performance suggesting some, albeit minor, relative economic progress is being made.  Nevertheless, the gradation from north/east to south/west is persistent and clear.  The issue for the local development community is whether/how Dorset’s GVA per head can be pushed closer to its neighbours over the long run.

Dorset LEP 2012 GVA (£mn) % share GVA (£mn) % share
agriculture, fishing & forestry 173 1.2 finance & insurance 1300 8.7
mining, minerals & utilities 688 4.6 real estate 2390 16.0
manufacturing 1419 9.5 professional, science & technical 1136 7.6
construction 1011 6.8 public admin, education & health 3017 20.2
distribution, transport & accommodation 2755 18.5 personal & leisure 604 4.1
information & communications 429 2.9 Total 14922 100.0

In sector terms (table above), public services account for 20% of local output, distribution services 18.5%, real estate 16% and manufacturing 9.5%.  In common with most UK areas, shares are growing over time for public services, real estate and ‘other’ services but falling for the production and distribution sectors.  These structural details depict an economy that is not moving towards the high value activities in production and services that the ‘rebalancing’ mantra implies.  Policy needs to understand this macro picture as delivery tries to influence overall issues of growth through productivity and employment.