Byline: Simon Jenkins
[bar] HAT Britain's economy needs right now is a thunderingly happy Christmas. It needs crowds in the high street, jams on public transport, full hotels, packed bars and restaurants, booming entertainments. It needs money circulating, spinning, gushing, and to hell with what the Bible says.
Like it or not, London is the engine of the British economy, and thus of its revival. London and the South-East outperform all other regions. The metropolitan area now makes up a third of the United Kingdom domestic product. Its role as a wealth generator has never been more crucial. But how best to promote it? The one thing London does not need is the one thing ministers are about to give it, a surge in house building and other major construction projects. New housing "starts" in the London area surged this year over last by 52 per cent, while such colossal projects as the water mains replacement, the Olympics, Crossrail and King's Cross continue to inflate building costs. London is awash in a building frenzy, with road disturbance adding untold millions to business costs. Not a road is without a construction site, not a stretch of tarmac undisturbed.
Otherwise London is not booming at all. In the last quarter, the South-East was more buoyant than London, and a quarter of a million Londoners are out of work and claiming benefit. Next year the tourist industry, London's second biggest, will be hit by the usual Olympic-city slump. In the past a weak pound compensated. But how much longer? The pain is being felt particularly on the high street. Retailers such as Tesco, Asda and John Lewis have all reported sales and profits down. Many high streets have one in four shops boarded up. A survey of retail leaders in Monday's Times showed almost two-thirds predicting no Christmas pick-up, against just one third making that prediction last spring. The Retail Consortium recorded October as having the worst drop in footfall since the snows of last year. The consortium's Stephen Robertson spoke of a "toxic mix" of rising fuel bills and low wage growth suppressing Christmas sales. The only boom this Christmas will be in the charity stores.
With one in five young people now out of work, the sensible question is, where are they most likely to find a job? Ask any young person and the answer is the same. After first and second choices are exhausted, the final resort is to the high street, to work in a shop, restaurant, bar or pub. I hear it from friends and family. I see it in desperate young people scanning windows for the once-familiar "assistant wanted" notice. Most new jobs are now filled on the grapevine.
No job creation will have more immediate impact than keeping the high street alive. There is no point in tipping public money into Crossrail or even new housing estates. They give money to consultants, then to big contractors and eventually to skilled workers or immigrant gang-masters. …