Conservative Danny Kruger MP has written an article for Times Red Box which builds on CPP's work on social infrastructure. This article has been reproduced here with kind permission of Times Red Box and also serves as foreword for the CPP's series on social infrastructure 'Let's get social: The case for investing in social infrastructure'.
We need a national mission to fix public health and adult education
This year has revealed our hidden strengths, and confirmed the weaknesses we knew about. The hidden strengths are in our households and our communities: for a society increasingly geared around mobility, autonomy and outsourcing, we have discovered our capabilities for settlement, interdependence, and local social responsibility.
In place of long commutes, limited family time and having nothing to do with the neighbours, the possibility has arisen of a better world: an old-new vision of virtue, enterprise, responsibility and belonging.
Our familiar weaknesses (among many others, but most pertinent now) are the state of public health and of adult skills. We have been hit so hard by Covid-19 because we are too unhealthy, and because our systems for managing infectious diseases were not good enough. And given the enormous shock to the economy that the pandemic has induced, we badly need people with the skills and capabilities to adjust to the new threats and opportunities we face, both for their own sakes, and for the country’s.
We need a national mission to fix our public health and adult education systems. Each has been the poor relation of its grander cousin, hospitals and schools respectively, but each is arguably more significant for the crisis we’re in. Think of public health as our defensive, and adult education as our offensive, capabilities. A fitter population is better protected against pandemics and all the other ills and evils of the modern lifestyle; and a skilled, educated workforce will build the businesses and bring forth the innovations that will make us prosper in the new world.
As research from the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) has shown, money spent on public health and adult education generates enormous returns for the taxpayer. The government benefits (in terms of lower welfare costs and additional tax revenue) by more than £5 for every £1 it spends on Level 3 vocational qualifications, and more than £27 for every £1 on interventions to promote public health. These are massive ratios. The eternal problem is that the savings generally accrue to budgets outside the Departments of Education and Health, and in years after the budget cycle in which the decision is made.
We need a wholesale change of approach in public spending, which should be explicitly cross-government and long-term. I have also suggested, in my recent report for the government on sustaining the community spirit of the lockdown, that we create a major new endowment, called the Levelling Up Communities Fund, to channel money into local social infrastructure.
Because it’s not just the amount of money that matters, it’s how you spend it. The recent announcements of a new national body for public health, and for major investment in further education, are very welcome. The vital thing is that we don’t over-centralise or control the systems we are investing in. We need to place more trust in the local professionals, in both public and private sectors, who have responsibility for the health of local populations and the development of skills.
We need to dismantle the centralised bureaucracies that sit above the heroic workers on the frontline, and that systematically disempower the individuals whose health and skills the systems are designed for. As the CPP argue, including in their forthcoming report The Business of Belonging, a more localised system delivers better, more practical help to individuals; it boosts economic recovery because of the multiplier effect of local spending on jobs and growth; and most important of all, it brings communities together.