Households are expected to see further rises in the cost of living after the annual inflation rate climbed for a 13th month to its highest point in almost 30 years. This will put further pressure on already stretched household budgets. The increase reflects a bounceback in demand for goods and services after lockdowns, when prices fell sharply. It also reflects the impact of supply-chain disruptions as Covid-19 hit factory production and global trade.
The biggest concern, however, is the impact it will have on those already hard-pressed families across the UK. According to official figures, prices are rising at similar rates for richer and poorer households. However, household income levels will determine personal experiences of inflation. Poorer households find it harder to cope than richer families as essentials, such as energy and food, form a larger proportion of their shopping basket than discretionary items. On average the lowest-income families spend twice as much proportionately on food and housing bills as the richest. So low-income households, if they are already spending mainly on essentials, will struggle to find where to cut back as prices rise.
Latest Inflation figures
Latest figures from the ONS show that the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rose by 5.5% in the year to January 2022, with further increases in the rate expected over the next couple of months. In measuring inflation, the ONS takes a so-called ‘basket of goods, which is frequently updated to reflect changes in spending patterns. For example, in 2021, hand sanitiser and men’s loungewear bottoms were added, but sandwiches bought at work were removed.
Annual CPI inflation is announced each month, showing how much the weighted average of these prices has risen since the same date last year. The weighted average is expressed as an index, with the index set at 100 in the base year, which is currently 2015.
Consumers would not normally notice price rises from month to month. However, prices are now rising so quickly that it is clear for everyone to see. What is more, average pay is not keeping up. There are workers in a few sectors, such as lorry drivers, who are in high demand, and therefore their wages are rising faster than prices. But the majority of workers won’t see such increases in pay. In the 12 months to January, prices rose by 5.5% on average, but regular pay, excluding bonuses, on average rose by only 4.7%, meaning that they fell by 0.8% in real terms.
The Bank of England has warned that CPI inflation could rise to 7% this year and some economists are forecasting that it could be almost 8% in April.
Why are costs rising?
From the weekly food shop, to filling up cars, to heating our homes, the cost of living is rising sharply around the world. Global inflation is at its highest since 2008. Some of the reasons why include:
- Rising energy and petrol prices
Oil prices slumped at the start of the pandemic, but demand has rocketed back since, and oil prices have hit a seven-year high. The price of gas has also shot up, leaving people around the world with eye-watering central heating bills. Home energy bills in the UK are set to rise by 54% in April when Ofgem, the energy regulator, raises the price cap.
- Goods shortages
During the pandemic, prices of everyday consumer goods increased. Consumers spent more on household goods and home improvements because they were stuck at home, couldn’t go out to eat or go on holiday. Manufacturers in places such as Asia have struggled to keep up with the demand. This has led to shortages of materials such as plastic, concrete and steel, driving up prices. Timber cost as much as 80% more than usual in 2021 in the UK.
- Shipping costs
Global shipping companies have been overwhelmed by surging demand after the pandemic and have responded by raising shipping charges. Retailers are now having to pay a lot more to get goods into stores. These prices are now being passed on to consumers. Air freight fees have also increased, having been made worse by a lorry driver shortage in Europe.
- Rising wages
During the pandemic many people changed jobs, or even quit the workforce – a problem exacerbated in the UK by Brexit as many European workers returned to their home countries. Firms are now having problems recruiting staff such as drivers, food processors and restaurant waiters. This has resulted in companies putting up wages to attract and retain staff. Those extra costs to employers are again being passed on to consumers.
- Extreme weather impact
Extreme weather in many parts of the world has contributed to inflation. Global oil supplies took a hit from hurricanes which damaged US oil infrastructure. Fierce storms in Texas also worsened the problems in meeting the demand for microchips. The cost of coffee has also jumped after Brazil had a poor harvest following its most severe drought in almost a century.
- Trade barriers
More costly imports are also contributing to higher prices. New post-Brexit trading rules are estimated to have reduced imports from the EU to the UK by about a quarter in the first half of 2021. In the USA, import tariffs on Chinese goods have almost entirely been passed on to US customers in the form of higher prices. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei said last year that sanctions imposed on the company by the USA in 2019 were affecting US suppliers and global customers.
- The end of pandemic support
Governments are ending the support given to businesses during the pandemic. Public spending and borrowing increased across the world leading to tax rises. This has contributed to rises in the cost-of-living, while most people’s wages have lagged behind.
Main concerns for the UK inflation
With rapidly rising prices, the economic decisions people will have to make are much harder. The main concerns for UK households include increases in energy costs, food prices, rent and interest rates on borrowing. All of these concerns come at a time when the government prepares to increase national insurance contributions for workers in April. There has been some pressure from MPs to scrap the tax rise so as to ease the pressure on living costs. It can be argued that there are fairer ways to increase taxes than through national insurance. However, the plan is relatively progressive, and scrapping the rise could be a badly targeted way of helping the poorest households with their energy bills.
Electricity and gas bills for a typical household are expected to increase on average by £693 a year in April, which, as we have seen, is a 54% increase. Around 18 million households on standard tariffs will see an average increase from £1277 to £1971 per year. And around 4.5 million prepayment customers will see an average increase of £708 – from £1309 to £2017. Energy bills won’t rise immediately for customers on fixed rates, but many are likely to see a significant increase when their deal ends.
Bills are going up because the energy price cap is being raised. The energy price cap is an example of a maximum price being imposed on the market; it is the maximum price suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge households for their energy. Energy firms can increase bills by 54% when the new cap is introduced in April. The price cap is currently reviewed every 6 months and it is expected that that prices will rise again in October.
Energy price rises are likely to hit Britain’s poorest households the hardest as they spend proportionately more of their income on energy, a problem exacerbated by many living in poorly insulated homes. More people are thus expected to find themselves facing fuel poverty. This means that they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy and cannot afford to heat their homes adequately. According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest will see their energy spend rise from 8.5% to 12% of their total household budget, three times the percentage for the richest.
The way fuel poverty is measured varies around the UK. In Scotland, a household is in fuel poverty if more than 10% of its income is spent on fuel and its remaining income isn’t enough to maintain an adequate standard of living. It is expected that the number of homes facing ‘fuel stress’ across the UK will treble to 6.3 million after April. It will, however, have the greatest impact on pensioners, people in local authority housing and low-income single-adult households who on average could be forced to spend over 50% of their income on gas and electricity. The Resolution Foundation thinktank has warned that UK households are facing a ‘cost of living catastrophe’.
Low-income households also spend a larger proportion than average on food and will therefore be relatively more affected by increases in food prices. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were up by 4.2% in the year to December 2021. The Monetary Policy Committee has stated that food price inflation is expected to increase in coming months, given higher input costs. It has been estimated by the thinktank, Food Foundation, that 4.7m Britons, equivalent to 8.8% of the population, are struggling to feed themselves and are regularly going a day without eating.
Supermarkets have also raised their concerns about future increases. Tesco’s chairman John Allan has predicted that the worst is yet to come, pointing to 5% as a likely figure for food price inflation by the spring. He cited high energy prices, both for Tesco and its suppliers, as a key factor behind the expected rise.
It has been observed that the Smart Price, Basics and Value range products offered by supermarkets as lower-cost alternatives are stealthily being extinguished from the shelves. This is leaving shoppers with no choice but to ‘level up’ to the supermarkets’ own better-quality branded goods – usually in smaller quantities at larger prices. The managing director of Iceland, Richard Walker, has stated that his stores are not losing customers to other competitors or to better offers, but to food banks and to hunger. This is a highly concerning statement given that 2.5m citizens were forced by an array of desperate circumstances to use food banks over the past year.
Private rents are also rising at their fastest rate in five years, intensifying the increase in the cost of living for millions of households. Data from the ONS reveal that the average cost of renting in the UK rose by 2% in 2021. This was the largest annual increase since 2017. The East Midlands had the biggest increase in average rental prices, with tenants paying 3.6% more than a year earlier. However, due to falling demand for city flats during lockdown, as people favoured working from home, London had the smallest increase at 0.1%. Nevertheless, as Covid restrictions are removed, renters, including office workers and students, are now returning back to cities. This is now pushing up rental prices with demand outpacing supply.
The property website Zoopla found newly advertised rental prices were rising much faster across the UK. It said the average rent jumped 8.3% in the final three months of 2021 to £969 a month. This increase in rental prices, combined with the general rise in prices will place additional pressure on the government to increase support for vulnerable families. The housing charity, Shelter, has reported an increase in people who are struggling to pay their rent and even pay their electricity. With Covid-era protections having ended, if people struggle to pay, they are faced with eviction or even homelessness. There are calls for the government to support such people by reversing welfare cuts.
Insurer, Legal & General, has announced an additional investment over the next 5 years of £2.5bn on its ‘build to rent’ schemes. The aim is to provide more than 7000 purpose-built rental homes in UK towns and cities. L&G claims that the additional homes are part of the solution to the rental problem, with rent increases being capped at 5% for five years. However, sceptics claim the company is simply trying to cash in on the booming market and there are calls for further government action. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation claim that renters will struggle as rents in some areas have risen as much as 8%. Despite this, housing benefit has been frozen for two years and therefore there are calls for government to urgently relink housing benefit to the real cost of renting.
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The Guardian, Phillip Inman (16/2/22)
BBC News, Beth Timmins and Daniel Thomas (20/1/22)
BBC News (4/2/22)
BBC News (16/2/22)
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Ashley Kirk (3/2/22)
House of Commons Library, Research Briefing, Brigid Francis-Devine, Daniel Harari, Matthew Keep and Paul Bolton (8/2/22)
Financial Times, Bethan Staton (6/2/22)
Financial Times, The editorial board (3/2/22)
Financial Times, Darren Dodd (19/1/22)
IFS, Peter Levell and Heidi Karjalainen (17/11/21)
IFS, Robert Joyce, Heidi Karjalainen, Peter Levell and Tom Waters (12/1/22)
The Guardian, Georgina Quach (16/2/22)
- What other measures of inflation are used beside CPI inflation? How do they differ?
- If all consumers are facing approximately the same price increases for any given good or service, why are poor people being disproportionately hit by rising prices?
- For what reasons might the rate of inflation (a) rise further; (b) begin to fall?
- Examine a developed country other than the UK and find out how inflation is affecting its population. Is its experience similar to that in the UK? Does it differ in any way?