The British economy is not ok. Non-government savings ratio have plunged, household debt has escalated sharply, non-mortgage debt has accelerated, real household disposable income growth has been negative for three successive quarters. And wages appear to have risen only marginally in the last 10 years. But you wouldn’t know it by looking around you.
Luxury cars. Designer clothing. And banks chomping at the bit to lend people even more money. The UK economy is on life support, kept alive by an intravenous drip of private debt. Ex-pat photographer and designer, Adrian Scoffham describes his return to the land of’fake abundance’.
When you live abroad as a British person for a longer period of time you become acutely aware of the situation in the UK when you return, I’ve been returning for about 20 years now, however this most recent trip seems like a fitting one to invite you along on. The first thing that hits me when I fly in is the Airport carpark; the sheer volume of brand new luxury cars – mostly on registrations from this year or the one before. The impression created is one of prosperity – a veritable sea of gleaming Audi’s, BMW’s, Mercedes, Jaguars and Land Rovers – these people must be doing really well I think to myself, such wealth, such abundance.
I continue on my journey from the airport, marvelling at the impressive redeveloped road infrastructure that’s been built. Neatly manicured shopfronts adorning the gentrified high-streets of Southeast England – pastel colours and twee nostalgia-based designer items reigning supreme, and indeed on many a high-street there are what appear to be independent bookshops and certainly plenty of coffeeshops. Both of these serve as signifiers of disposable income – again, I note that people must be doing well.
Curious about the appearance of wealth and general well-to-do-ness about the UK I turn to the job pages to see what people are earning, what kinds of jobs are on offer. I have to double-take. Wages appear to have risen only marginally in the last 10 years. Many of the middleweight positions between £35-60k seem to have disappeared. I go out and drive through a less upmarket part of town, where there were once normal shops there’s a huge proliferation of charity shops and betting shops – I wonder to myself if perhaps these are the only ones who can afford to pay the rents?
The next task is to go shopping. When abroad I’m used to being able to buy one of any item that I need at a reasonable price – not in the UK; you’re instructed to buy two get one free. The trouble is one alone is disproportionately expensive, especially in the fruit and vegetable isles; even retailers that cater to the middle-class and upwards are engaging in this form of psychological warfare – I’m left with fear-of-missing-out and bundle more into my trolley than I need. Of course many shoppers interpret buy one get one free offers as value for money – ignoring the hidden cost of food waste. I feel forced to accept abundance.
A little later into my trip I need to buy some footwear, so to get a good deal I head to a ‘Designer Outlet’ centre – thinking that perhaps I can score a bargain. I go into about five different retailers and discover that three of them that are branded differently can only be owned by the same company; they look totally different, target different segments of the market and even make the effort to brand their products differently and offer them at slightly different price-points, but the products are exactly the same, except for slight colour variations. I feel cheated and worse than that they’re wasting my time with this illusion. The other two retailers run products at huge fake discounts that can only have been charged for 28 consecutive days in a lonely Scottish store with no customers in order to comply with UK trading laws. I leave, with no footwear, disgusted at what’s become of the high-street.
I had stumbled across the perfect mirage of abundance and supposed value for money, except it really wasn’t – it was all fake.
Later on I learn that Waterstones has taken to creating shopfronts that look like independent Bookshops, and that Tesco runs Coffeeshops that look like independent ones. Opening the Guardian I happen upon an article stating that four out of five new cars are on PCP (Personal Contract Purchase) or PCH (Personal Contract Hire) – meaning that the cars are not owned. The impression of people owning these cars is created by a financial slight-of-hand whereby customers pay for the depreciation, which is less on luxury cars and explains why there are so many on the roads. All well and good as long as used car prices remain stable, which they have done over the past seven years – however reports suggest this may soon change as oversupply of certain car types and a lack of secondhand demand may have an impact, and the people liable for this are those who signed the contracts.
I speak to a few friends to pick up some empirical views about the real state of the economy as what I’ve discovered seems contradictory at best. It’s often said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics and it would appear that that’s what we’re looking at here – one friend commented that the pubs have got a lot emptier over the past year, whilst another suggested that more and more people are shopping in discounters rather than in supermarkets, and that their grocery shops are smaller, and more regular. It’s hard to collect real data that can be relied upon because there are so many regional variations, anyway – that’s not my aim,
The final act to this tale happens when I get home and a friend opens a letter from their bank, it’s offering a £30,000 unsecured loan – and suddenly I realise, in the absence of increased wages or productivity, where all the money is coming from. I realise I’m in the land of fake abundance.
I take no pleasure in surmising that it seems that the UK is on life-support, with unsecured private debt being the intravenous drip keeping things alive. There are two parallel worlds that exist on this planet; one – in which the only money supply available is from salary or wealth accrued over generations, and another – where salary and assets are topped up with fictional wealth in the form of cheap and easily available credit flooding the economy and papering over the cracks, as anyone who’s tried wallpapering over cracks will know, the cracks are still there and they’re getting bigger – and no amount of paper will stop them.
Adrian Scoffham is a British photographer and brand-designer based in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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