The UK is in unprecedented political turmoil, devoid of any strategy and increasingly resembling a Chris Morris satire, writes Andrew Teacher

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Andrew Teacher

It has been some years since life increasingly began to resemble the warped parody of one of Chris Morris’s satirical TV shows. The Brass Eye creator’s Nathan Barley series from 2005 is something I have recently been insisting some of my younger staffers stream as essential viewing in the current context. 

Barley is the anti-hero of a send-up of Shoreditch hipsters, filmed a decade and a half before everyone else unwittingly became a T(uesday) W(ednesday) A(nd) T(hursday) midweek worker. The central theme is that the “idiots” (the hipsters) are “winning”. And right now, irrespective of whoever is still in the Cabinet by the time Building Design set this live, there are millions of people in Britain who probably feel the same way about the country right now. 

If there is one thing I miss more than a time when TV comedies had the freedom to offend, it’s the time when truth meant something. And of course, the distant memory of when gilts were considered safe, before their yields began to resemble the returns on Yahoo stocks.

Listening to well-educated politicians claim that Vladimir Putin is responsible for mortgage rates soaring, or that the US Fed is to blame for markets viewing Britain as an emerging economy (as Bloomberg reported), is depressing.

Are we now in peak Post Truth?

I wrote last month about the “search for intelligent life” in UK politics. But with a climate-denying business secretary and a so-called “growth” policy that seeks to do away with environmental regulation rather than challenge entrenched dogma over protecting the green belt, what we are really looking for in British politics is a pulse.

But reader, I am paid far too much by Building Design to merely offer you colourful analogies about how awful things are.

So let me join the armchair economics tupperware party and tell you what should have happened and what will happen next. Albeit, given how quickly things are moving, I reserve the right to change my mind next week. I may well tell you that, in fact, Eurasia had always been at war with Oceania. This is now commonly known as “doing a Liz Truss”.

There are three radical moves the government could have made if it was serious about growth being more than a teflon coating for rehashed policy failures and tin-eared political opportunism. Avid followers of some of my research over the years will recall that I authored and published the award-winning Radical Regeneration Manifesto in 2019.

The report was launched with around 50 big name supporters, which led to the government setting up a group within what was then the Department for Communities and Local Government to drive forward the Oxford-Cambridge Arc – something scrapped two years later when ministers realised it wasn’t in Teeside. So let me plagiarise from that report to get us going.

Some of our suggestions included loosening the visa mess, created post-Brexit, and creating an Olympics-style planning authority to remove the pain of having to negotiate nationally vital infrastructure with local councils who often see little incentive for “growth”. You can read the full report here.

When I saw the investment zones announcement in former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s Mega Budget (the third or fourth time I have seen some version of this idea), it was almost like a Brass Eye send-up. Rather than focus on areas likely to drive national growth or with policies likely to make a difference (with a presumption in favour of development for key assets – such as labs, rented housing or renewables, for example), we got a slapdash series of suggestions. For the most part these are targeted at places investors are never going to head or with policies that undermine Britain’s legal environmental commitments.

Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) said, on 12 October, that it “would not countenance anything that watered down important minimum requirements on quality, environmental standards or affordable housing” in a stinging riposte to the government. With one of the UK’s most progressive climate policies, it’s good to see OCC holding firm.

Investment zones need to respect the reality of what business needs. It needs speed, certainty and support in the right areas. Cheap debt – now that the botched Mega Budget has sent rates soaring – is one such offering that could help when it comes to funding lab space for startups and spin-outs. Rather than continually play politics with these sorts of funds, ministers should think about where the current engine rooms are.

For many, these aren’t in labs or campuses, but on high streets. And while I’ll save my retail rants for a column closer to Christmas, I can’t express how much of a missed opportunity it has been to leave business rates unchecked as the battering ram of a tax on failure continues to destroy lives and defy common sense.

For the same cost as cutting National Insurance Constributions for firms, shelving the corporate tax hike, scrapping the 45p rate and handing people like me – who absolutely do not need it – a stamp duty cut, the chancellor (who may well be someone else by the time you read this) could simply have scrapped rates.

Yes – I can hear ratings experts at Gerald Eve, Colliers and Daniel Watney screaming from the back. This would cost £28bn. But think how disproportionate a tax this is for so many smaller firms – those which pay rates despite making no profit and which are the lifeblood of so many communities. You wanted radical. Or maybe you didn’t.

Shakey economics, shakey broadcast peformances and shakey support from backbenchers means that the current government is not long for this world. And however the tussles between the Bank of England and the government play out, one certainty is the resetting of values in real estate and of the distress that will fall across highly leveraged structures and more speculative, peripheral activities.

The K-shaped recovery often talked about does mean there are still winners to back, such as those whose business models are underpinned by structural deficiancies or inefficiencies. The lack of rental housing, for instance, is an issue everywhere. But the cost of leverage and the car crash reputation Britain has right now will make many investors stop and wait before pressing ahead.

The collapse in values of secondary and tertiary retail malls also creates a wonderful opportunity to reposition old assets, refurbish worn-out town centres and create new value from distress. But where will demand be? And will there be anyone to work there? We have the lowest level of unemployment for decades and still have thousands of unfilled jobs.

But no, of course Brexit isn’t to blame. And no, Eurasia has never been at war with Oceania

For the first time in many people’s careers, they won’t be able to just sit on assets and watch values soar. The last decade has seen allocators in various sectors ride the markets while pretending to be geniuses. Some are. But this next cycle will favour the value creators – not the allocators. It will favour those able to be creative with distress; smart with how to structure leverage; and radical with how they get around some of the problems successive governments have created with housing, taxation and planning.

Abstract phrases like “asset management”, “regeneration” and “placemaking” – all rendered meaningless by the way they’ve been appropriated by senseless corporate marketing guff – will need to be re-explained and proven. But the value creators will relish this opportunity.

So if it feels a little bit like common sense is being cancelled right now, then do this: hunker down, get your crayons out, dust down your business plans and promise to not let the idiots win.