In my Money Week column last week, I looked at how London escaped the recession, and what lessons we should learn from that. Here's a taster.
The classic 1960s war film ‘The Great Escape’ was based on the break-out of a group of Allied prisoners from a camp in the town of Zagen, in what was then Germany but is now Poland. But if you wanted to re-make it, with a financial rather than military escape, you’d probably set it in London.
At the height of the credit crunch, everyone was forecasting that London’s economy was doomed. The City, and the ancillary industries that fed off it, would come crashing down to earth. The rich would flee, and the bankers would soon be applying for jobs at MacDonald’s.
It hasn’t happened. The financial services sector has recovered sharply. London has emerged from the recession in better shape than the rest of Britain. Employment is stronger, growth is better, and house prices have bounced back. If anything the gulf between London and rest of the UK has grown wider.
There are important lessons in that. If the rest of the British economy was anything like as strong as London and the South-East, the whole country would be roaring ahead. Instead of talking about re-balancing the UK economy, we should be learning the lessons of London’s success, and trying to get the rest of the country to perform as well as it does.
The figures make it quite clear that, of all the regions in the UK, London and the South-East, have emerged best from the downturn. A CBI report released on Monday showed that financial services firms expanded strongly in the latest quarter. The big banks such as HSBC and Barclays are making huge profits again, and the City is doing well. A study by the London School of Economics, led by Henry Overman, the director of its Spatial Economics Research Centre, concluded that London had comes back stronger from the recession than any other region, and it suffered less in the downturn as well.
For example, London’s income per capita fell by 2.5% between 2008 and 2009, while it fell by 2.9% in England as a whole – and of course London was already a lot richer before the recession began. There were fewer job losses as well. The UK saw peak-to-trough falls in employment of 3.9%, whereas London saw only a 2.6% fall. And house prices bounced back quicker than anywhere else in the country. Indeed, Savills reports that prime London properties grew in value by 5% this year, whilst prices were still stagnant or falling in the rest of the country.
True, London benefited a little from government policy. The Olympics is a massive building project. The bail-out of the banks primarily helped the London economy rather than anywhere else. Against that, the massive run up in government spending did nothing for London. The South-East has far lower government spending as a percentage of the economy than other regions: in Wales for example, state spending accounts for more than 70% of the economy, whereas in the South-East it is around half that, at an estimated 36%. And of course London is harder hit by the tax rises than other parts of Britain – the new 50% rate will hit a lot of Londoners but not many people elsewhere.
In fact, the evidence of the recession is that London and the South-East have a hyper-resilient, hugely competitive economy. What we need to do is try and make the rest of Britain more like London.
There are four important lessons from the capital’s success.
First, and most obviously, London is plugged into the global economy far more than any other part of the UK economy. What happens to the rest of Britain or indeed Europe doesn’t matter that much. London’s bankers, lawyers, consultants and accountants are servicing the BRIC economies more than anything else. Russian and Far Eastern companies are flocking to raise capital on London’s markets, and that means paying lots of expensive fees. London had connected itself into booming markets – not locked itself into declining ones.
Next, London has specialised in professional services, and made itself a world-leader in selling those to the rest of the world. There is a lot of talk about reviving specialist manufacturing or creating other new industries for the UK. But the truth is, we don’t have many sectors where we can compete with Germany on quality, nor where we can compete with Eastern Europe on manufacturing costs. Maybe the best policy would be to recognize where our strengths lie – and get the rest of the country to try and do more of the things that London does so well.
Thirdly, London has a highly-skilled and hyper-flexible labour market. According to the Labour Force Survey, for England as a whole, professional and service occupations were hit less badly by the recession than administrative, trade and basic occupations. That was good for London, since professional occupations account for a larger proportion of its labour force – nearly 50%, compared with under 40% in the Midlands and the North. There was more flexibility on wages as well, partly because bonuses (which go down as well as up) are a bigger part of pay. That helped London’s workers keep their jobs through the downturn.
Finally, the state accounts for a far lower share of the London and South-East economy than it does for the rest of the country. Working for the government may be relatively secure during a recession, and that provides some protection for the regions. But the state sector also has low productivity, low growth, and it doesn’t export anything. It consumes rather than generates wealth – and it is only in London and South-East that it is small enough to allow the rest of the economy to flourish.
Forget everything you read a couple of years ago about how this would be a middle-class recession that hit London harder than anywhere else. It just hasn’t happened. Instead, London is pulling further ahead – and as the government spending cuts start to bite, that will become more and more obvious. But there is nothing that special about London. It is part of the same country as Manchester and Cardiff and Birmingham. If those regions could learn where the capital was doing so well, the UK would be doing a lot better than it is.