A focus on economic growth is too narrow

The scale of economic inequality across the UK is scandalous. Roads and broadband won’t fix this: strong social infrastructure will

Features
Rishi Sunak on his way to deliver last month's Budget (©Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The grand sweep of human history is colourful and complex, but its message to politicians is surprisingly simple. If they seek to help humans flourish, and they should, then just two threads, ubiquitous from ancient Jewish philosophy to the modern Office for National Statistics (ONS), matter above all else.

A purpose and a partner feature in Genesis, one of the first allegories of creation. God gives Adam the command to “subdue the earth” and somebody with whom to do it. Fast forward 3,500 years and the statistics confirm the relevance of this
philosophy.

The “Happiness Index” introduced by David Cameron almost a decade ago was met with some derision, but the data is still being collected by the ONS and shows that little has changed over millennia. When people are asked to rate their wellbeing, they report that the most important factor is how they feel physically. In second and third place are marital status and economic activity: whether you have a partner and a purpose. Household income, the main measure by which most governments now seem to judge themselves, comes way down the list, behind age, gender, household tenure and children.

The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles talked of the importance of philotes (love) and neikos (strife). Sigmund Freud expounded that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”. We need look no further than Mumsnet to find the modern interpretation of the ancient theory, in our continued endeavour for “work-life balance”.

The government’s budget statement only half reflected our yearnings. It had much to say on purpose, but little on people. It spoke of a government that, like so many others, is very comfortable with talking about strife and work—but has almost completely lost the language of relationships.

This could cost them crucial support. Behind the “red wall” live millions of people who want to change the political and social status quo. They abandoned their allegiance to Labour to vote for Brexit and the Conservatives not because they sought a four-day week and a mega-state to look after them, but because they wanted a reason to get up in the morning and the close, trusted relationships that made them feel at home. This is why the wall fell; and why a purely materialist politics will fail to engage them.

This was a “strife” budget clearly designed with the UK’s infamous productivity gap in mind. Spending on R&D, further education, road networks and the like have a good return on investment. That is welcome.

But unless we use social policy to support the least advantaged in society, these investments will bear little fruit.

The scale of economic inequality across the UK is such that people in the London Borough of Camden, with a population of 260,000, create more new enterprises than in the following places combined: Barrow (population 56,000), Blackburn (150,000), Blaby (100,000), Blackpool (140,000), Bolton (195,000), Bolsover (80,000), Boston (70,000), Bridgend (144,000), Broxtowe (113,000) and Burnley (88,000).

This scandalous gap is not down to poor roads and slow broadband but to poor social infrastructure: these places are afflicted by the country’s highest number of alcohol-related deaths, incidence of substance abuse and male suicides. Unsurprisingly, the rate of unemployment is almost double the national average; only a quarter of the labour force boasts high-level skills—half the average in London and the southeast.

Liverpool is further proof that social fabric matters more than shiny new cables or tracks. Its recently rebuilt city centre has seen significant investments in its roads, local transport plan and a 5G technology hub. And yet Liverpool also has four of the bottom five constituencies for employment in England, according to the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (Walton, Knowsley, Bootle and West Derby); children living there are three times more likely than those in the southeast to grow up in a workless household. For somebody coming from a home of second-, third-, or even fourth-generation unemployment, who has never seen an adult get out of bed for work, much less understood the dignity of bringing home a pay packet, even the newest, smoothest roads lead nowhere.

Bringing prosperity back to these areas is in all our interests. When those on the margins find stability, work and independence, more adults and children have a chance to thrive, more people become net contributors to society and demands on the public purse reduce.

The Centre for Social Justice focuses on the “five pathways” to poverty found in areas of multiple deprivation: worklessness, family breakdown, debt, addiction and educational failure. Anybody can suffer from one or two of these problems over their lifetime, but when these start to mount, and multiply, our resilience ebbs. Systems alone will not help: any solution must be based on close, trusted relationships. To that end the Centre works with over 400 small charities, giving out tens of thousands of pounds every year to some of the very best. They are employment charities, criminal justice charities, addiction recovery centres, football clubs and educational support groups. 

The Oasis Centre in Gorton, one of the most deprived areas of Manchester, is a thriving community centre that offers literacy  and keep-fit programmes, a choir, and a cup of tea to anyone. It has been running for almost 30 years and Victoria Armstrong, its founder, says: “We just love anyone that comes in. Unconditionally.”

People involved in such projects talk unashamedly about relationships. Most of us talk about relationships, if at all, with our own family and friends. But our politicians fear them.

They are missing a trick. If the government truly wants to level up the country and give meaning to the increasingly vacuous “One Nation” mantra, it needs to stop talking about civil servants and civil partnerships and start talking about civil society. It needs to support not only those small community groups, youth clubs, charities, churches, and members’ groups that breathe life into every village and town around the UK, but also the families on which they are so often built.

The £2.5million budget announcement “for research and developing best practice around the integration of services for families, including family hubs” was welcome—but a research grant seems a paltry investment in a social good proven to boost educational attainment, mental and physical health, and reduce the likelihood of criminal activity and homelessness.

This summer will see a spending review, followed by another budget in the autumn. The government should remember to put human support alongside the economic infrastructure, and focus on those five pathways that lead to destitution and despair.

For the workless, that means a functioning Universal Credit system. But it also means the human support for those a long way from the job market with mental health problems, addictions and chaotic lives.

‘This was a strife budget. But unless we use social policy to support the least advantaged in society, these investments will bear little fruit’

It is a telling statistic that only 15 per cent of food bank clients are waiting for a Universal Credit payment—but almost half live completely alone, and a further one in four are single parents, compared to one in 10 and one in 20, respectively, in the general population. The credit was originally designed with a human offer called Universal Support, which offered assistance to those too vulnerable to navigate the system. This additional clause has gone all but missing in the rollout: it must return.

In education, we need to recognise that many of the problems our children face are deep-rooted and cannot be fixed with cash. Around a third of pupils in England fail to pass English and Maths GCSEs at 16. Around nine million working aged adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills, and 5 million lack both. (Low literacy means not being able to understand instructions on a medicine packet; low numeracy means struggling with a fuel gauge.) These woeful outcomes cannot be blamed entirely on inadequate schooling: children spend 85 per cent of their lives outside the classroom. Many of their problems have little to do with school and everything to do with social breakdown.

Our research has discovered cuts of about a third across the country in addiction treatment. Yet more people die of drug misuse every year than all knife crime and road traffic incidents combined. One in three of the drug deaths by overdose that occur in Europe happen here, in the UK. NHS estimates suggest that 338,000 hospital admissions last year were attributable to alcohol, an increase of 15 per cent from 2007. And amid the half a million problem gamblers in the UK, one in 10 is a child.

Better trains and fast broadband won’t fix this. Supportive relationships complementing addiction treatment might.

People in severe debt often view the government as their biggest problem: the welfare system can automatically extract a quarter of their monthly payment while councils are the biggest employers of bailiffs in the country. Adopting a long-term repayment plan would help—as would a (free) adviser on financial management.

Family life in Britain in 2020 bears little resemblance to the experience of past generations. The incidence of living alone, divorce and fatherless families have grown far more common. The number of couples getting married has fallen over the past 50 years. The number of cohabiting couples has risen by more than half over the past dozen years. The number of families where both parents work has doubled in the last half century, as has the number of lone parents working. 

All these changes have profoundly affected the traditional family. A marriage tax break or a community centre will not turn the tide of the last 40 years. 

Why does this matter? A child’s family is the key determinant in their chances of success, from the number of words they learn, to the role models they copy, and the self-confidence they enjoy. As research by Dr Jack Shonkoff at Harvard University has shown, the difference between disadvantaged and prosperous young people is not family income but family relationships—those who have strong connections with their parents and their extended family do immeasurably better in terms of academic attainment, future income and relationships.

Can we strengthen the family? Yes, if we prioritise support for those embarked on the five pathways to poverty. Investing in couples’ relationships; addiction treatment; affordable housing; and family hubs that deliver parenting classes, post-natal care, and support in financial management to local residents.

True prosperity means fostering strong relationships to bind us—whether as family, neighbours, members of the same group or volunteers for the same charity. Empedocles understood the value of this 2,500 years ago. So too should we.