Brick lorries on the M1
11 Apr 2012

According to the latest data from the Office of National Statistics, the UK economy has double dipped into recession, after shrinking by 0.2% in the first three months of 2012.

A recession is basically defined as two consecutive quarters of contraction in economic output and the economy shrank by 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Now these figures are not yet final and will be revised at least twice over the next few months, but a lot of the blame for the fall in output is being pinned on the construction industry, which although only accounting for around 7% of our economy, contracted by a very significant 3% in the period.

Anyone who has been to East London recently will know that the construction sector is alive and well there, with the huge amount of development that has been going on in readiness for the Olympics. This does make me wonder how bad it would be if 2012 was happening elsewhere and I have to say worries me in terms of the impact once the teams and tourists have all gone home after the middle of August.

Now there used to be an old saying that you could tell the state of the economy by how many brick lorries you saw on the M1. I am not entirely sure this reflects an accurate way of measuring, but it stands to reason that a growing economy would be transporting materials for infrastructure growth too, so as a linkage point it is a good old wives' (or old bankers') tale.

Yesterday I had cause to drive down to Southampton for business and whilst I wasn't on the M1, I did decide to take note of the inevitable volume of lorries that would slow me down and get a sense of what they were carrying.

One cement mixer was genuinely the only identifiable construction-linked freight I saw for the best part of 100 miles of motorway and dual carriageway. By far and above the most prolific transportation was of either food, Asda and Tesco appearing the most, or faceless container vessels on their way from the ports. No doubt carrying imported goods, mostly from China, fuelling their growing and developing economy and doing not much at all for ours.

We all know that new house building remains depressed, businesses are reluctant to expand into new premises and the nation generally is in a sort of low confidence limbo period waiting to see what might happen. However we can't run a healthy economy based purely on the service sector propped up by small growth in retail fueled by our desire to buy yet more imported gadgets. So unless we start taking the risk to make the move, take the next step and match our actions with our aspirations, what might happen is a continuing downward story resulting in yet more unemployment and more contraction.

Don't get me wrong – this is a really difficult one to wrestle with. But instead of an austerity programme, perhaps the government could set about a positivity programme which just might give the UK the confidence to forge ahead without being tied to the woes of the rest of Europe and maybe will even result in a few more brick lorries on the M1.