Productivity is everything, here's how we boost it

The Chancellor decided not to exercise his traditional right to present the budget alongside a stiff drink. That’s a surprise, because today’s OBR GDP Growth projections would have any reasonable person reaching for the bottle. The stubborn refusal of productivity growth to return to its pre-crisis levels has led the OBR to predict that growth will be a sluggish 1.5% for the next five years. By contrast, the US is currently growing at twice that rate.

Forget the gimmicks, the jokes and the tweaks to the tax system, this should be the big the story out of the budget. And if the OBR’s forecasts are correct, we should expect voters to be even more likely to risk it all on a radical socialist agenda.

Hammond understands the problem. It’s welcome to see him commit to boosting R&D spending and recognise the importance of sorting out the housing crisis so people can move to the high-paying jobs of the future. But frankly, the measures announced in the budget won’t do enough to really move the needle.

If the government wants to get a grip on productivity, here’s what they need to do.


As my colleague Sam Bowman persuasively argues the housing crisis is a key driver of the productivity crisis. Nobel Prize Winner Ed Prescott found that wages in the US would be 12.4% higher if planning regulations were relaxed in the most productive cities. It’s likely that the problem is even worse in the UK.

Hammond is right that housing has become increasingly unaffordable because we’re not building enough. Indeed, if rumours are true he understood the need to build on the Green Belt but was blocked by the PM. Still if the government are truly committed to ending the housing crisis they need to be bolder and focus less on distractions like second homes and land banks, and more on fixing the broken planning system.


The UK has one of the lowest levels of business investment in the EU. Only Greece and Portugal invest less as a share of GDP. Part of that is down to a tax system that encourages consumption at the expense of long-term investment. Corporations are able to deduct day-to-day expenses (e.g. stationary) from their annual taxable income, but they can only deduct long-term productivity boosting investments in new machinery gradually as the investment depreciates. But a £100 tax benefit is worth much less if I don’t get it in full until ten years down the line. Worse still, even as corporation tax has fallen (a good thing) the cuts were funded in part by lengthening capital allowances and for industrial buildings scrapping them altogether.


Cheaper off-peak rail travel is a nice perk, but it’s no substitute for ensuring that Britain’s towns are well-connected to growing cities and ensuring everyone has a fast connection to the web.

Since Thatcher, the fundamental debate between Labour and the Conservatives has been about whether it’s better to grow the pie (the Conservative way) or slice the pie more evenly (the Labour way). If the Conservatives can’t deliver the real growth, voters will desert them for a less dynamic but more egalitarian Labour government. Put simply, if the OBR’s forecasts come to pass then this government is toast. But we shouldn’t be fatalists, we know the policies that can kickstart growth across Britain, we just need a government with the guts to implement them.