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Festive season

This week’s Autumn Statement is a clear reminder of the importance of economic policy for the lives and livelihoods of people across the UK. The Festival of Economics, which took place in Bristol last week, explores exactly how, drawing on the insights of scholars, practitioners and the media.

Newsletter from 24 November 2023

The Bristol Festival of Economics began with a simple tweet. Diane Coyle (of the Bennett Institute at Cambridge and one of the lead editor at the Economics Observatory) – having just attended such an event in Trento, Italy – asked why we didn’t have our own version in the UK. Her appeal was picked up by Andrew Kelly, director of Bristol Ideas – and the rest, as they say, is history.

That was over a decade ago, and last week Bristol hosted its 12th Festival of Economics. More than 2,800 tickets were sold across 16 events, over a third of which went to school and university students. If you missed the festival, all talks were recorded and you can listen to them for free on the Bristol Ideas SoundCloud.

The week’s activities kicked off with the annual Bank of England citizens panel in the South West. This is a forum for members of the public to talk to the Bank’s staff, including the regional agents based in Bristol, Malindi Myers and Jamie Barber, and, this year, two members of the Monetary Policy Committee, which sets the country’s interest rates: Huw Pill, the Bank’s chief economist, and external member London School of Economics (LSE) professor Swati Dhingra.

Two big topics were the focus of the discussions: how the spike in inflation and rising interest rates are affecting the lives of participants and their friends and families; and the future of money, including cashless transactions, crypto assets like Bitcoin and the possibility of a central bank digital currency.

The following three days brought together academic experts, practitioners and journalists to discuss many of the pressing economic and social challenges faced by the UK, across book talks, panels and live podcast recordings.

Day one focused on food – our relationship with it and what this can teach us about the economy, global and local supply, food security and poverty, and food prices and how they affect our family budgets and health. You can read a summary of the discussions by Bethan Staton (Financial Times) here. Tuesday’s events were rounded off with a live recording of Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales podcast. Keep an eye out for this upcoming episode on Tim’s website, or on usual podcast platforms.

Day two’s sessions highlighted the vast inequalities found both in our society today, and throughout history, with discussions of empire and oligarchs. Talk of their vast wealth and power was set in stark contrast against the needs of many of the most vulnerable in society as attention turned to the healthcare, social care and childcare systems that are cracking under increasing demand and pressure. Marie Segger (The Economist) sums up the question left in many of our minds: ‘How can we create an economy that cares for everyone?

On Thursday, we looked to the future and considered the housing, infrastructure and educational needs of the country – summarised here by Melissa Lawford (The Telegraph). From railway lines and the minerals in our phones and internet cables to homes, it became clear that the UK needs to bolster its building and to do so in a way that meets our commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. At the same time, policy-makers’ planning and decision-making should factor in the cohort of youngsters born from the early 2010s – Generation Alpha – who will experience the real changes that climate change and rapidly advancing technologies will bring.

Meanwhile, the big UK economic news story this week has been the government’s Autumn Statement. Many of the economic experts and organisations that work with us at the Observatory are key contributors to the in-depth independent evaluation of economic policy announcements like this, and their implications for families, firms, public finances and the economy.

As ever, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) provided detailed pre- and post-match analysis. So too did the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), the Resolution Foundation (which focuses on living standards of low and middle-income households) and, with a Scottish perspective, the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde.

Several of the economic journalists who took part in the previous week’s festival in Bristol also made some striking comments on the Autumn Statement, including Ed Conway of Sky News and Mehreen Khan at The Times. And there was a notable take on LSE blogs from Anna Valero at LSE, who had expertly chaired the now traditional festival conversation between Huw Pill and Jagjit Chadha, director of NIESR and one of the Observatory’s lead editors. Once again, their discussion of inflation and the recent performance of UK monetary policy provided many valuable insights into the outlook for the UK economy and the potential impact on people’s lives.

 Authors: Ashley Lait and Romesh Vaitilingam
Photo by Bhagesh Sachania
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