The Community Links led Early Action Task Force has recently published a new book One Hundred Days for Early Action: Time for Government to put prevention first: A collection of essays by a respected group of leading experts and thinkers with decades of experience of Government – as, civil servants, senior advisers or respected commentators.
The latest of our posts serialising the essays between now and the General Election is by by Professor Anne Power, London School of Economics who looks at the learning from post-war austerity to consider if Early Action could be a unifying concept which brings together the solutions to a complex set of issues facing an incoming government.
Download the book.
A new Government in May 2015 will have its work cut out to commit to much spending in its first 100 days, due to the continuing deficit and voter antipathy to raising taxes.
The economy is still shaky and a majority of people feel poorer than they did. Social solidarity has weakened with the long recession and there is a wall of hostility to those vilified as scroungers, immigrants and the unemployed.
The rising cost of social care and health services in an aging society make tight budgets even tighter. The sharp rise in obesity and diabetes, the increase in mental ill health, and the physical disabilities resulting from our sedentary lifestyle all add to the long-term funding and social pressures on Government.
The cost of “welfare”
The cost of “welfare”, including pensions and in-work benefits, continues to rise, while drastic cuts in welfare payments have barely dented the problem as more older people are live longer, needing longer pensions and more care as they age. As more workers are on low pay with irregular hours and precarious job contracts, they rely on benefits to close the gap. Universal Credit will push up the benefit bill for this reason. Low income households now rely increasingly on private renting, paying high rents for insecure tenancies so housing benefit costs also rise for the Government. Homelessness has risen due to evictions, forcing even greater reliance among working people on housing benefit.
The younger generation is triple hit by housing shortages and costs, job insecurity and low pay, and cuts in welfare. Meanwhile, ludicrously high salaries are paid to business leaders and Chief Executives while they pay an even lower share of taxes. The fall of wages at the bottom and rise at the top creates such inequality that “Occupiers” protest. This divide will burden a new Government, keen to make its mark quickly. It will have to broker a new deal at lower cost. The problems of the bottom half of the population are far more concentrated and intense than the top half, and therefore need more help, more Government resources and some redistribution. Otherwise, problems risk getting out of hand and harming the whole society. This makes early action at low cost vital but difficult.
There are some powerful, unifying issues. We are all subject to sickness, aging, housing problems, anxiety and insecurity. Business is particularly vulnerable to a workforce that is too poorly paid, inadequately housed, with low skills and no security. Businesses argue for local government to tackle the overarching problems that go beyond their individual powers but damage their business.
We can learn from our post-war austerity and sharing. A basic healthy diet, fair distribution of essentials, preventive care of mothers and children, work for all able-bodied men and women, a minimum income for all, were introduced to tackle the “five giants” of poverty, ignorance, disease, squalor and want. Today, by undermining that universal system of support, we are recreating the age-old “giants”.
Five “giants” stand out for action, echoing those great reforming ideas of 1945: housing, income insecurity, food, public health, the environment. When we were poorer after the war, we produced cheap, modest, decent homes; improved conditions and ensured a basic minimum income for all citizens – in sickness and in health, in and out of work, old or young. We introduced free health care at the point of delivery and universal free maternity care, health visitors, district nurses, school nurses, midwives, relying heavily on well-trained women who spot problems in advance and “help nature do its work”. We set in place greenbelts, National Parks, clean air legislation and so on. These are all central to our wellbeing and one part of our hard-won welfare which has nothing to do with “scroungers”. Our life expectancy rose because of sanitation, clean water, hand washing, street cleaning, refuse disposal, food hygiene, light, ventilation, all measures pioneered by nineteenth century local government and expanded after World War II. Growing food locally in small amounts was a key to health during and after the war, and could be a low cost key for today – something that low income groups will do if given the chance.
The most inescapable issue is the natural environment; our most precious, shared resource, finite, damaged and dangerous – floods, storms, heat waves, rising seas, collapse of fish stock, loss of forests, pollution, climate change. We risk huge extra costs unless we control pollution, reforest bare land, protect our eco-systems, enforce green belts around cities, stop sprawl, and more than halve the energy we use. We can avert disaster, with big benefits to the economy, jobs, communities and conditions.
Free markets and unrestrained economic growth in the 1980s were countered by New Labour from 1997-2007, valiantly committing to “abolish child poverty”, to “ensure that no one was disadvantaged by where they lived” and to “provide equal opportunities for all”. But the ongoing shrinkage in manufacture, hardening of North-South divide, created a further cleavage that Labour did not budge. Some inroads were made, but not enough to stop either deep inequalities or the great financial crash of 2008. Some Early Actions – Sure Start Centres, neighbourhood renewal, school academies, city-region devolution, family intervention projects – had a strong preventive focus and encouraged local action.
However, the international banking crisis and deep recession that followed has changed everything. For seven years, we have experienced economic uncertainty, falling wages, job losses, resource limits, rising costs for essentials, public spending cuts, all leading to increasing hardship and a growing disenchantment with politics and political leadership. Voters deserting to UKIP is no answer. A new Government offers a new lease of life. Early action defines a new Government, and 100 modest actions in the first hectic 100 days is the goal – I choose just ten simple, basic ideas.
Ten Early Actions
1. No subsidised rented housing – Council or Housing Association – shouldbe demolished except in extreme conditions. Councils should not sell their assets to developers for “mixed communities” and “regeneration”. Developers can add homes at profit to publically-backed schemes, not the other way round.
2. Low cost rented homes can be added to subsidised estates through ground-floor conversions, infill and corner additions to increase density, create a mix of households and expand the affordable supply.
3. Council tax bands must be raised at the top for expensive property to generate revenue and reduce incentives to under occupy. The Welsh Government has already done this. Council Tax charges for the poorest households should be near zero.
4. The minimum wage should be fairer to the lowest paid and Universal Credit should be reformed to stop encouraging employers to offer penal employment conditions, including zero-hour contracts.
5. Private renting requires “light-handed regulation” to provide greater certainty and control to landlords and investors while giving greater security to stable tenants. Minimum security, standards and conditions help both landlords and tenants, while allowing flexible, shared accommodation and the use of small spaces. Emergency, short-term and time-limited lettings must be included through special provisions.
6. Food growing could become everyone’s responsibility as during and after the war – no matter how small the contribution. With a strong push, most people can produce some food for themselves. Window boxes, front areas, tubs, street corners, yards and alleys can all house plants. Fruit trees, apple, plum and pear trees, with glorious spring blossom, can replace ornamental flowering trees on streets. Food waste can be cut from 30% to 5%, targeting all public institutions first – schools, colleges, hospitals, offices, but also restaurants, cafes, banks etc. Councils could levy a food waste tax on institutions which would generate revenue, while cutting waste, similar to the landfill tax which has slashed building waste. The Energy Company Obligation should be reshaped to ensure stable investment in existing stock to tackle fuel poverty, energy bills and to halve energy use in homes and commercial buildings. Energy companies should not be the installers of energy saving measures as this can lead to abuse. Suspended and cancelled permissions on outstanding onshore wind turbines must be reconsidered where objections are of a lower order than community benefits. Wind energy is now the most cost-effective, easy-to-install renewable energy source in the UK – and potentially reliable if distributed far and wide.
7. We must protect and extend our vital eco-systems:
a. National Parks
b. Forests, woods, hedge-rows and urban trees
c. River systems and flood plains
d. All areas of valuable top soil
e. Marine conservation areas
f. Parks, play spaces and playgrounds
g. It is easy and cheap to “green cities”, involving citizens of all ages.
8. Planning is a vital and inexpensive tool for the Common Good. Government must play an overarching, brokering role in planning any development as a crowded island poses multiple challenges. A layered approach between national, regional, local and community level action plans works best – a jigsaw approach, as in Scandinavia, Austria, Germany.
9. Young people are worst hit by income, housing and job barriers. Hand-holding and face-to-face support transform those barriers into opportunities. Building on what works, we can create a “Troubled Youth” programme, learning from the “Troubled Families” programme. A personal and group support process gives people who struggle a real chance.
10. Social care is increasingly costly and burdensome. Training, enhanced status and fairer contracts for care workers could transform the quality of social care at modest cost. Simple ideas such as “sharing homes” can work cheaply and brilliantly – a non-profit agency encourages elderly people with spare rooms to house a young worker who lodges cheaply in exchange for simple services, company and security.
We have broken new ground with few resources in our past. A new Government must do it now.