Snazzy snapshots and regional rifts

Top of the Charts

Afternoon all,

I for one did not see the Government moving quite so quickly from stopping the boats to stopping the trains. But then again maybe it’s fitting the week managed to squeeze in immigration and HS2 given they have something in common: I’ve lost track of how often I’m told that scrapping (or for that matter turbocharging) one or both of them is the answer to all the country’s ills.

Despite these big policy decisions, it’s the slanging match of the day week that’s filled the newspapers: Lineker vs Braverman. And Suella is certainly living up to her surname (obviously it would be too woke to change it to Braverperson). Her opponent is the face not only of football, but also our genuine national passion. She’s messing with fire salt and vinegar crisps.

Enjoy this week’s reads and we’ll see you next Friday with a Budget special. Expect some slightly improved, but still quite grim, forecasts and quite a bit of policy action – from childcare to disability benefit reform. Have a great weekend.

Chief Executive
Resolution Foundation

Regional rifts. There are LOTS of papers on the UK’s economic geography problems these days. I spare you most because there’s a lot of repetition, but that’s not the case with a new thoughtful paper (Twitter summary) from Anna Stansbury (occasional Resolution collaborator), Dan Turner and a particularly promising young economist… Ed Balls. Problems-wise the paper reminds us employment gaps have narrowed but productivity gaps are very big, driven by the underperformance of our large cities outside London. Manchester and Birmingham are key due to being very big (we’ve got big Economy 2030 projects underway with both this year). Answers-wise the authors think that having enough graduates matters, but falls in the graduate premium outside London mean this has become less of a binding constraint. Instead they highlight poor infrastructure (we have neither American-style roads or European-style public transport), and the extent to which public R&D spend is concentrated in the south (something the Government has recognised and started to address). The paper’s long on pages, but also on interest so make the effort!

Topping-up tuition. Having kids reminds you daily that the world has changed since you were young. On my list of what’s changed is private tutoring, which appears much more common than I remember from the dawn of time the 80s. A new Sutton Trust note shows this rather more scientifically: almost a fifth of pupils now have some private tutoring during their GCSE years. It’s (obviously) very unequal by income (32 per cent at the top vs 13 per cent at the bottom) and the differences between ethnicities are almost as stark (Black African/Indian/Bangladeshi pupils are twice as likely to receive tutoring vs white peers). There is some good news on the inequality front – the post-pandemic National Tutoring Programme (NTP) in state schools seems to have provided most tutoring to poorer pupils/places, so that the “gap of almost 15 percentage points in private tutoring narrows to one of less than 3 percentage points in all tutoring”. This doesn’t mean the NTP was perfect but progress is progress people.

Snazzy snapshot. A group of academics at Edinburgh/Essex universities have taken the time to build a website dedicated to the evolution of the labour market post-Covid. Check out their regularly updated “Labour Market Snapshot”, especially the chart on sectoral change since Covid: while some public sector employment (public admin + education) has surged above pre-crisis levels, almost every other sector has fewer workers today – manufacturing, retail, and construction have had big hits.

Localising learning. Social mobility discussions about universities focus very much on who gets in to the top institutions. But where universities are, not just who goes, matters is the lesson from a recent US study. It compares counties that in the 19th and early 20th century were allocated a teacher training college (which often went on to become regional public universities) with otherwise similar counties that were chosen to house an asylum (which funnily enough haven’t gone on to become universities). By examining outcomes for those born 1978-1983 in these two sets of counties the researchers argue that these universities make a real difference: they raise the proportion of children born locally going to university, as well as their employment/incomes. The impact is particularly strong for children born into poorer households – “rais[ing] the fraction with a four-year college degree by over eight percent.” About a decade back there was a discussion in the UK about HE cold spots – with a variety of views about whether having areas with few universities was a problem or not. This paper sides with those wanting to warm up the cold spots.

Quango quitting. There are loads of reports on how to set up new public sector organisations such as the recent burst of new departments. But the Institute for Government gave us something completely different this week with a note on how to shut down public bodies. There’s lots of good/traumatising nuggets about the experience of “the bonfire of the quangos” from the early 2010s (politics motivating the messy closure of the Audit Commission for example), and we’ve seen high profile closures more recently in the case of Public Health England. The headline conclusion is less rocket sciencey: ideally ministers would know about an organisation (its purpose/activities) BEFORE abolishing it and realise that the purpose for which it existed may well continue after abolition (we’d still like some public health…).

Chart of the Week

I mentioned we’ve got the Budget, and probably some chunky reform of disability benefits (specifically of how disability and ill health is treated within Universal Credit). COTW provides some background, to help explain why disability benefits are playing a larger role in public policy discussions these days. The headline = there’s loads more people on them. Why? More of us have a disability/illness (the population’s older and some conditions are more prevalent e.g. depression) and you have a very strong incentive to apply for disability benefits when our benefits system’s basic provision is incredibly mean with extra support focused on those claiming for extra costs (e.g. rents as well as disability). This big picture policy choice, and attempts to ration who gets more support, has pushed us into the deeply sub-optimal position where claimants can be assessed twice – for whether they have a disability and they are too ill to work, with the latter having a binary distinction between those who can and cannot work that doesn’t reflect the real world. Addressing those problems is the case for reform. The case against is that the recent history of such benefit reforms (the introductions of Employment and Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payment) were painful and certainly didn’t deliver the lower benefit spending that HMT had in mind…