The realities of life in 'squeezed' Britain
Last week Graeme Brown of The Birmingham Post described analysis of data compiled by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in which Malcolm Winston of accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young gleaned that households in Birmingham have less disposable income than 90% of other UK cities.
Birmingham households are almost bottom of a league table for the amount that is left to spend after they have paid for essential expenses such as tax and their accommodation (mortgage or rent); 36th out of 40.
ONS data shows that the average household in Birmingham has £12,229 in disposable income. This represents a 10.58% increase over the last five years but significantly the average increase for the UK has been 12%.
What this research shows is that, on average, people in Birmingham are becoming relatively poorer than their counterparts in the vast majority of cities in the UK.
This has an impact in terms of the way in which retail patterns in the city will evolve and one only has to walk down any high street to see the effects in terms of closed shops and the proliferation of pound shops.
Given the loss of manufacturing jobs in the large manufacturing companies we have seen in recent years - most notably Rover cars - there is an urgent need to attract investment by major companies into the city.
If this does not happen there will be a gradual decline of this once great city.
As someone who was involved in contributing to Lord Heseltine's review into regional growth I can attest to the sense among the participants of the meeting held at the Council House last July of the need for rapid action to ensure that Birmingham once again becomes noted as a location for those with brilliant and innovative ideas.
Someone should tell Michael Gove that all students should be taught what made cities like Birmingham influential during the period of rapid industrialisation as there are reports he believes that children should simply be taught the chronology of Kings and Queens.
Students of history should appreciate the importance of the influence of the Lunar Society and the profound impact its members had in laying down the foundations for the citadel of creative thinking and productive capability.
Maybe this will instil in them the desire to develop enquiring minds which will produce the novel and wonderful ideas which, in turn, will produce the sort of well-paid jobs needed to ensure that we move up the disposable income league table.
Very interestingly, the ONS data resonates with the annual report published by The Resolution Foundation 'Essential Guide to squeezed Britain' in which there is analysis of the economic position and prospects of those on low to middle income (LMI) which they define as 'those of working age and living on incomes below the median (middle) in the UK.'
According to the Resolution Foundation LMI households include couples without children living on gross income of between £12,000 and £29,000 or those with children on between £17,000 and £41,000.
Given that the average net income of an LMI household is £20,500 it can reasonably be assumed that many households homes in Birmingham fall into the Resolution Foundation's definition.
In the analysis of the proportion of LMI living in each region the West Midlands has 34%.
The Resolution Foundation report provides a wealth of detail as to what the impact is on those living in such households.
For those who cannot be bothered I can summarise.
For those who remain in work (some 77% though many are in part-time), a sense of struggle exists in trying to pay weekly bills for food and heating and a constant struggle to save up for luxuries such as holidays birthdays and Christmas.
LMI households with children are especially under pressure to provide the things that will mean they don't feel stigmatised by poverty and will enable them to wear decent clothes and participate in activities such as school trips and other extra-curricular activities such as after school sports and learning to play an instrument.
No-one can ignore the fact that our utility bills have risen enormously in recent years and today's announcement by Chief Executive of Ofgem Alistair Buchanan that as we close down aged power stations and become more reliant on importing energy we will need to pay more means that the situation will only worsen for everyone; most especially LMIs.
Indeed the recent food scandal of meat that is not all it should be (no horse jokes!) might be blamed on the desire to provide cheap food.
To give some credit where it is due I really admire the fact that charities such as the Trussell Trust are providing free food through their 'foodbanks'. That those on very low income avail of these is no surprise but that those who are in work should also need charity to feed them and their family would seem in 21st century UK to be a disgrace.
In one piece of data presented in the Resolution Foundation's report there is an indication of low pay in Britain showing the proportion of workers 'earning less than the living wage'.
The West Midlands at 24% is not exceptional (there are three other regions with this percentage) but only Wales at 25% is worse.
The key question is how can some form of remedy be implemented which will arrest the decline felt by the LMI households?
As Martin Whittaker of the Resolution Foundation, who is a senior economist and wrote the report believes, that even if the economy started to recover and wages increased by above inflation it would take at a decade least ten years for the so called "squeezed middle" to recover to the point where their earnings are equal to those they 'enjoyed' before the global financial crisis of 2008:
"There is a long road to travel just to get back to where living standards stood before the crisis - and the prospects of actually recovering the ground lost over recent years appear vanishingly thin. Every extra month of falling household incomes is harder to take than the last as household budgets get closer to the edge."
The recent heated debate concerning the efficacy of the 10p tax rate can be seen to be driven by the increasing recognition that the squeezed middle income earners are finding it tough to make ends meet.
And we wonder why high street businesses are closing down at an increasing rate; ipso facto me thinks.
The Resolution Foundation's report contains warnings to another important industrial sector; housebuilding.
Saving up a deposit for the first property now takes an astonishing 22 years and as the report demonstrates, a majority of under 35 year olds now live in privately rented property.
This is a change and this generation would have been a major part of the drive to become part of the 'property owning democracy' that Margaret Thatcher so passionately espoused.
Things, it seems, are getting worse and as Chief Executive of the Resolution Foundation Gavin Kelly stresses, the widely held belief that tax credits and benefits which LMIs frequently depend on will disappear after the next election.
There is an increasing urgency to do something radical to avoid the creation of a generation who believe their prospects to be hopeless and simply give up even whilst still at school.
Recently published research by academic union UCU provides analysis of the ONS Annual Population Survey to show those aged between 16 and 64 in the 632 parliamentary constituencies for England, Scotland and wales who have no qualifications.
Very worryingly, there are four constituencies from the West Midlands in the ten areas with the highest proportion of people of this age with no qualifications
Birmingham Hodge Hill is the constituency with the second highest proportion of working-age adults without qualifications (27.2%) only Glasgow east being higher. Wolverhampton North East has the fourth highest proportion of adults without qualifications (25.6%). Birmingham Hall Green (23.3%) and Wolverhampton South East (23.2%) are ranked ninth and tenth.
In 82% of the West Midlands region (23 of 28 constituencies), residents aged 16-64 are more likely to have no qualifications than across the rest of England, Scotland and Wales (10.7%).
Gaining qualifications is essential to increasing job prospects, earning ability and, as a consequence, progression through life. Not having them will make someone more vulnerable to unemployment and certainly mean that they are more likely to earn less which will result in the situation described earlier of reduced disposable income.
The conclusion is therefore that whatever happens at government level, particularly in terms of the decisions taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it is absolutely vital that the response by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP to Lord Heseltine's report 'No Stone Unturned, In Pursuit of Growth' ensures that we generate precisely the sort of economic activity which results in jobs with decent pay and prospects.
If we don't we can hardly be surprised if the appalling statistics contained in the UCU research continue to increase with the potential for even greater social decline and deprivation.
To those who claim that HS2 will assist in Birmingham's economic revival I would counter that as well as the danger of simply making this city a suburb of London, its construction is too far into the future.
By the time HS2 is finished Birmingham might be as well!
We need solutions to create economic wealth and jobs based on the active cooperation of industry and academia today.