The Week

The Week, 18 March 2022

This week, focus has remained squarely on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and its knock on effects — huge increases in energy prices and a deepening cost of living crisis. Here’s a few things you might have missed in a (very!) busy week.

First up, the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee published their latest report on taking a long-term approach to resilience and wellbeing. As the Committee notes, “the pandemic is a wake-up call: we now need a drastic overhaul of our approach to resilience and preparedness so that we are more ready to face future disasters”. Doing so, they argue, will require a better understanding of our vulnerabilities — first and foremost we must focus on securing robust international supply chains and strengthening our critical national infrastructure.

But to build a truly resilient state we must have a resilient society. The report argues that resilience comes largely “from the capacity and capability of non-government actors, from individuals and communities to businesses and charities, to take action and mobilise; the Government’s role is to enable, support and co-ordinate.” In this vein the Committee calls for major efforts to build social capital through community-level public service innovation and a furthering of devolution to local government, with renewed efforts to build trust between the state and civil society institutions. We at Reform completely agree.

On a similar theme, on Wednesday, the National Infrastructure Commission published its progress report on the state of infrastructure policy and delivery. Developing and improving infrastructure is vital if the Goverment wants to achieve its ambitious plans, from levelling up to achieving net zero. However, the Commission sounds a warning that “progress is insufficient towards the goals to which government has committed”. While some notable progress has been recorded in launching the National Infrastructure Bank and expanding gigabit capable broadband, we are falling behind on energy efficiency and home insulation, and in rolling out electric vehicle charging points.

In times of crisis, the kind of long-term thinking required to plan and deliver effective infrastructure projects often takes a back seat. But as the Commission rightly argues deviating from plans is not a trade-off worth making: sticking to a long-term strategy “is the only way to address the stubbornly difficult problems that will not become any easier or cheaper to solve by delaying action...the quicker we tackle them, the quicker society and our environment will reap the benefits.”

Finally, it would be remiss of us not to mention the Chancellor’s Spring Statement next week. A combination of higher than expected economic growth and soaring inflation will give Rishi Sunak some extra wriggle room on spending. Real GDP growth in Quarter 4 last year was around 0.5% higher than the OBR’s Autumn forecast. Rising fuel costs could see the Treasury net an additional £2.9 billion in VAT from motorists and much higher inflation forecasts mean that the four year freeze on the income tax personal allowance announced last year is expected to generate £21 billion in revenue, two and a half times more than expected.

Of course rising inflation also means higher costs for public services, putting many departmental budgets under significant pressure, and higher costs to service government debt.

Nonetheless, that extra revenue is the result of households being squeezed, and so the Chancellor should use some of it to help low-income families facing the most severe cost of living crisis in decades. The most sensible option available is to increase the rate at which benefits and pension credit are uprated next month. Brief recap here — benefits are set to rise in line with inflation forecasts set last September, meaning they will increase by 3.1% in April. This is far below the expected rate of inflation, which is expected to rise to 8% in the coming months. Applying a 6% uplift would cost around £3 billion, and is the minimum the Chancellor should do on Wednesday.

Here’s our recommended reads from the past seven days...

First up, two related pieces on loneliness. The first comes from researchers at the University of Glasgow and finds that loneliness, life satisfaction and psychological distress are closely interlinked and that during the first six months of the pandemic, all of these variables deteriorated. But increases in loneliness and psychological distress, and decreases in life satisfaction, were particularly marked in “low quality” neighbourhoods, those with low levels of social capital and where residents lacked a sense of belonging.

This was a major problem even before the pandemic as our friends at Neighbourly Lab, What Works Wellbeing and the Campaign to End Loneliness note in a report released this week. It finds that in 2019, 700,000 Londoners experienced severe loneliness. This had significant impacts on health, economic opportunity, and wellbeing. The authors call for “massively increasing London’s level of social connectedness” and better targetting loneliness interventions at those most at risk.

Speaking of strengthening social connectedness, this interactive report by Careful Industries maps a number of (quirky!) future visions of civil society, focusing on the importance of belonging, care and repair. It’s exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that is needed to reinvigorate our communities and floats a range of proposals from a Civil Contingencies Volunteer Corps (CCVC) to a radically reformed school curriculum focused on emotional intelligence. Do give it a read!