Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
The budget, today, must be as much about rebuilding our social infrastructure, as it is about building our physical infrastructure.
We Conservatives have always been the reliable custodians of economic infrastructure. All signs suggest today’s budget will spark an infrastructure revolution.
The immediate goal? Aside from addressing the economic challenges presented by the coronavirus, there will be a commitment to ‘level up’ across the country. Manifesto pledges on rail, roads, energy, broadband and freeports; all are enormously welcome and will go some way to connecting left behind places to the opportunities that others routinely enjoy.
But, if this cash injection is to get the UK going again, we must also invest in ‘social infrastructure’. It is the people of the UK that will bind physical infrastructure to economic growth, not the other way around.
In its broadest sense, social infrastructure is investment in people. In its most transformative form, it allows disadvantaged individuals to overcome entrenched social challenges and turn their lives around.
There are surely few better examples of personal hardship than drug addiction – shockingly prevalent in our country. One in three of all overdose-related deaths in Europe take place within our borders. More people die each year as a result of drug misuse than they do from all knife crime and road traffic cases put together.
Addiction also casts an ugly shadow on other pursuits, including gambling and alcohol. Building our social infrastructure means investing in suitable prevention and treatment services, and we must bring these within one coherent government strategy on addiction.
Poor housing, too, crushes economic opportunity. In my own constituency of Harlow, the housing crisis affects my constituents every day. From the very visible problem of rough sleeping to high rents and poor-quality accommodation, we will struggle to make any headway without more quality housing.
That means rough sleeping strategies that do not just get people off the street but give them help with mental health problems, relationships and addictions. Social housing should not just trap people on forgotten sink estates but build in the opportunities and support for them to thrive. There must be reinvigorated routes to ownership that don’t just give us a stable home to grow in, but a real financial stake in our communities.
The Ministry of Housing, Local Government and Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, clearly recognises these challenges, and has made impressive strides in starting to tackle them.
But it is not just housing that matters; the home environment is also vitally important. Half of all children born today will experience family breakdown by 16, and the rate is particularly acute in our most disadvantaged communities. In this context, building social infrastructure means giving people the chance to access helpful support services. Like family hubs, which provide a more integrated approach than children’s centres by extending their focus to the whole family, and supporting children and young people from 0-19.
High cost of living, too, blunts people’s chances of making progress in life. There is little point in creating opportunities for low-income families to earn more money if those additional pounds are swallowed by a more ravenous tax man. That is why it would be a mistake for the government to raise fuel duty. A fuel duty rise doesn’t just drain motorists’ income; it puts inflationary pressure on food prices, public services and bus fares. Instead, the government should be slashing costs for low-income families.
But nowhere is investment more urgent than in our nation’s education system. I see this first-hand in my role as chair of the Education Select Committee. Of course, high school standards are essential. Access to good university courses are key. But, these two things take up far too much of the public conversation on education.
Far more attention should be paid to FE colleges, which do an extraordinary job in transforming the outcomes of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, even though their budgets have lagged other areas. There is only so much they can do without additional resources, and we must invest properly in this vital form of social infrastructure.
The Government should revolutionise our apprenticeships offer, starting by refining the levy so that it supports more young, disadvantaged apprentices. We must also remain ambitious for children who leave mainstream education, by exporting rigour to all parts of our alternative provision sector.
Education does not stop at 21. Around nine million working aged adults in England lack functional literacy or numeracy; many end up in low-paid jobs, their prospects dragged into the quick-sand. Yet overall adult learning is the lowest it has been since 1996 and employer investment in training is flat. To jump-start adult learning, businesses should be offered more tax relief for investing in skills.
Physical and economic infrastructure alone cannot be the engine of individual flourishing; success will not simply trickle down to everybody if we just get this right. Yes, we should build the glossy new railways and the sleek fibre optic cables. But the Conservatives must be the party of social infrastructure, too, and we must undertake the less glamorous interventions that will help people banish the personal adversity that is blighting their lives.
Only then can we really level up.
Coronavirus: Keep Calm and Carry On!
Although we’ve had an individual from Essex being treated for the coronavirus in my local hospital, it is interesting that I have had hardly any communication from Harlow residents about COVID-19.
My own feeling is that whilst we must do everything we are told by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Science Officer, most people in my constituency are keeping calm and carrying on (but, of course, they will be washing their hands frequently). I haven’t seen much panic buying in my local Tesco, although it is true that hand sanitisers are becoming hard to find – I, for one, am getting around this by carrying a soap in a dish in my pocket.
Understandably, everyone focuses on the role of the National Health Service, yet one of the unsung heroes in all of this is Public Health England, who will shortly be moving to Harlow.
They are in charge of public health in our country and are providing all the guidance and a lot of the research on this virus. It is truly an extraordinary organisation. Apart from the United States, Britain is the capital of the world for public health science. Whatever happens over the next few weeks, we should be thankful for Public Health England.