We are living through an extended moment of emergency, beyond what we ever might have imagined. Whilst there is a sense of hope through the deployment of a vaccine, the economic impacts of the pandemic are only just beginning.
Public borrowing and debt are skyrocketing, while income streams from many major tax receipts including business rates are plummeting. If you’re looking for some new year cheer, it’s probably best to steer clear of the predictions for economic growth especially as they are only likely to get worse in the short term as we live through a necessary further national lockdown.
As we continue to respond to the coronavirus crisis and begin the next phase of Britain’s transition from the European Union, we need to harness the further period of lockdown to formulate a coherent plan for the next year which integrates rather than divides the connectivity between our health and wellbeing, our economy and our ambitions for our places.
It would be naïve to think COVID’s impact will be limited to a relatively short period in our history. As the Chief Medical Officer said in his annual report, published just before Christmas, the long-term effects of COVID ‘are likely to be substantial’ including reduced education, increased deprivation due to increasing unemployment, skills deficits and loss of opportunity that will lead to a scarring impact for a long time to come
Professor Chris Whitty’s report also addressed the multitude of other enduring health challenges facing the nation, including the impact deprivation and inequality can have on not just peoples’ immediate wellbeing but their long term life chances too.
Calderdale, in West Yorkshire where I am chief executive, is ranked among some of the most deprived local authority areas in England. Using seven measures – income, employment, education and skills, health and disability, crime, barriers to housing and services, and people’s living environment – a total of 20 neighbourhoods in my borough are in the top 10% of the most multiple deprived in England.
From what I see every day, it is crystal clear that health and wealth are inherently and inextricably linked. Recognition of this is crucial as we seek to recover from the pandemic whilst also capitalising on the opportunities presented by Britain’s departure from the European Union, particularly in those areas of the country where investment needs to be sustained, substantial and strategic.
The Conservative manifesto committed this Government to ‘reducing health inequality’ and went on to state that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) would be the mechanism through which to do this, as well as to tackle deprivation.
So it is particularly disappointing that, despite repeated promises that a consultation was imminent, the sector has not yet had the chance to engage in any meaningful way with the Government on UKSPF and how it should operate.
A Treasury document published at the Spending Review did say that £220m will be provided in 2021-22 to help local areas prepare for its introduction and pilot new programmes and approaches, and outlines two strands to UKSPF. One ‘will target places most in need across the UK, such as ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and rural and coastal communities’, while the other will be spent on “bespoke employment and skills programmes that are tailored to local need’.
But as Professor Whitty said in his report: “Ill health and disease concentrating in areas of deprivation is long-standing and needs to be tackled. Describing and deploring it is not enough; we need to have actionable plans to improve it.” This is the gap in UKSPF, and the Government’s plans more widely.
To be fair to Government, its refreshed Green Book is a positive step in the right direction promising to ensure project appraisals analyse how proposals deliver on key priorities, including levelling up, and how they will impact different place, with a hope at last that resources will go to the areas where viability and impact is always going to be harder fought.
But at Solace we wanted the Government to go a step further. Ahead of the Spending Review we proposed creating a £100bn endowment fund – matching the quantum the Government committed to invest in physical infrastructure – to inject new funds across the country into social infrastructure, in particular preventative measures, with the aim of addressing inequalities and driving up life chances. Investment at this scale, with a levelling up by default approach, rather than a demarcation of levelling up to specific one off interventions, is desperately needed. And it is needed now, to begin the prosperity
2020 will go down as one of the worst years for our nation’s health and wealth. But the challenges we face now can be a catalyst for a fundamental rethink about the way national and local government spends and invests with a view to creating more equitable, sustainable and resilient communities.
Robin Tuddenham is Solace spokesperson for economic prosperity, and chief executive of Calderdale MBC