The Week

The Week, 10 December 2021

Nothing says Christmas like the publication of two Government white papers in as many weeks. A new Prisons Strategy closely follows the Government's white paper on social care, published last week. Among the headline proposals are a new Prison Education Service and employment advisers — who will match offenders with local job vacancies. We at Reform have long argued that a serious strategy to reduce reoffending must have education and training at its core.

Those of us keeping an eye on the Department for Levelling Up (DLUHC) will have to wait until the New Year for its white paper, however. If rumours are to be believed, we could see a change to the way councils bid for cash from central government. Often, councils are pitted against each other in a competitive process that awards funding to the most compelling bids. But, as Tuesday's publication by the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee notes, this risks rewarding councils that are "most adept at submitting applications" and not those with the greatest need. Considering almost a quarter of these applications are for less than £1 million, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, should be asking whether this is a proportional, or effective, approach.

Meanwhile, it is hard to disagree with Gove's assessment that a priority for Levelling Up should be "advancing pride in place". But some priorities are easier stated than defined. An important question to answer is this: who gets to decide what "pride of place" means? Already, there are a huge number of ways power is devolved in the UK, whether through councils or local authorities, regional mayors or police and crime commissioners. Yet according to the most recent Community Life Survey, only 27 per cent of Brits feel they can "personally influence decisions in their local area". Clearly then, for Levelling Up to be a success, we need much better ways of engaging citizens in decision-making. In fact, Pew research published this week found having a "voice in government" was the most common theme that arose in the way UK citizens defined democracy.

One way to advance pride in place, touted in a Conservative Home article published this week, would be to reintroduce "floor targets". These would consist of minimum standards local governments must meet to facilitate pride in place. For instance, one target could be the proportion of people within walking distance of a green space. Another could be the ratio of a place's median income to the price of a season ticket for public transport. Every other target would then be up for grabs and laser focused on those local priorities — from clean beaches to diverse places of worship — that can bring an area pride.

Finally, this week's briefing note from the Resolution Foundation challenges how we think about capital gains from assets compared with gains from income. It finds that the nominal capital gain from increased house prices has exceeded £80,000 for over 65s whilst young generations' prospects of home ownership have continued to decline. This could revive debates about how much wealth we can reasonably expect homeowners to release towards the cost of their social care. Not least, since these gains tend not to be directly earned and rely on taxpayer investment in schools, transport, public spaces, and so on.

Here's what we're reading...

Our first recommended read this week is an article in the BMJ, by Chris Ham, which argues for a national infrastructure plan to create a buffer that would be make the NHS more resilient in times of crisis. It calls on the Treasury to acknowledge that spare capacity is not "a sign of inefficiency" but rather the necessary price to pay to withstand future threats. The article claims this could be done by separating funding for capacity-building from funding for sustaining existing services. In turn, this would free the NHS to make longer-term plans, and avoid immediate pressures "always taking precedence". Agreed! Albeit with the rejoinder that a further way to create this capacity is, of course, to improve population health and so reduce the demand on services. Beds, equipment, and staff will certainly form part of the equation, but creating capacity cannot be separated from the ability to scale-up at pace in times of crisis, as argued in our paper 'A State of Preparedness'.

Next up, is the Government's response to a consultation on Transforming Public Procurement. It announces new rules which will block companies with a track record of "poor delivery, fraud or corruption" from winning public contracts. The hope is that it will become easier for SMEs to bid for and win contracts, with a simplified procurement regime and measures to make procurement more transparent. For more on transparency in procurement, this Reform perspectives paper is a good place to start!

Finally, a damning Public Accounts Committee report which finds that Departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what exists and "real digital transformation". These legacy systems, some of them dating back to the 1970s, are said to undermine the delivery of vital services whilst getting in the way of emergency services saving lives. One example is the Home Office's programme to replace the police national computer, which has been delayed for five years, with an associated cost overrun of over £400 million. The report argues that planning for digital change needs to become a core activity for Whitehall — given the constant "merry-go-round" of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. Reform has previously argued for the importance of retaining "digital leaders" capable of driving cross-government initiatives that embed the right digital infrastructure across the public sector.