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Britain's New Giants
We travelled across the country to understand the UK's biggest local challenges. One towered over all the rest: inequality.
On a hot July evening, Hastings was wilting. The closed down cafés and boarded up amusement arcades seemed to betray the pretensions of the new pier and a refurbished community cinema-cum-antiques-emporium in which we met. Even the seagulls couldn’t be bothered with a group of visitors from London juggling laptops and banner stands with open packets of fish and chips. As RSA Fellows and others from the area met to talk about Britain’s ‘New Giants’, we were left in little doubt that Hastings – like many other seaside towns - felt disconnected from an otherwise prosperous South East and ignored by those in power.
It was the same at a workshop the RSA’s public services team ran in Swindon, where the local community poet treated us to a sardonic verse called “Brexit Tick-Tock”, and in Manchester where women from Oldham spoke of their anger that, despite all their self-organising, they felt unheard. A palpable discontent. Uneasy conversations. Unexpected outbursts of anger. Even at our workshop in London, in a rather groovy community-centre-cum-science-lab in Bermondsey, all the talk was of isolation, disaffection and despite being hyper-connected communities, people were struggling to find common cause.
Recalling William Beveridge’s Five Giant Evils of 1942, some workshop participants reflected how straightforward the social challenges seemed back then: squalor, ignorance, idleness, want, and disease, each with a practical prescription for a big state solution. Oh, that it might be so simple today. Many bemoaned the work still not completed on these giant evils. With the nation in an anxious mood, it was not difficult to elicit examples of more contemporary concerns, nor to find consensus from around the country about the nature of Britain’s New Giants.
In every place we visited, one Giant towered over all the rest: inequality. Income and wealth inequality were at the forefront of people’s concerns and it was considered symptomatic of a society that had lost its moral compass. In Manchester, Hastings, Glasgow and elsewhere there was also a deep sense of spatial inequality, with a visceral resentment towards the concentration of power in London. Racial and gender inequality were also significant concerns, as was the impact of inequality on our physical and mental health. For some, inequality lay at the root of hopelessness and lack of aspiration; what some called ‘apathy’. Many Fellows saw this problem as a feature of our broken democratic system and, with recent political events looming large, there was much talk of the pros and cons of referendums, the state of our political parties and our highly centralised decision-making structures.
Others focused on different types of disconnection and insecurity. Isolation and loneliness were highlighted not only as symptoms of an ageing society, but also as problems affecting us all and key contributors to the apparent deterioration in the nation’s mental health. A lot of blame was heaped on technology, and social media was pinpointed as a breeding ground for growing levels of intolerance and polarisation.
In every session, environmental concerns surfaced as a looming shadow on the horizon, whether in the form of climate change, air pollution or our consumer culture more broadly.
Inequality. Disempowerment. Isolation. Intolerance. Climate change. According to RSA Fellows, these are Britain’s New Giants, identified with unerring consistency right across the nation. And they would appear to reflect public concerns too. In a brand new public poll undertaken by Populus, when asked about the biggest challenges facing Britain the public agreed with inequality as the biggest concern, jointly with an ageing society (49%). This was followed by isolation and mental illness (35%), climate change (35%), and then international relations/Brexit (33%).
These challenges facing 21st century Britain must constitute a starting point for shared missions if society is to progress with the pace and creativity that characterised those early decades of the welfare state. Any 21st century enlightenment will have to confront these giants collectively and head-on to illuminate the national mood.
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A new social settlement
Beveridge’s generation designed the welfare state to tackle the Five Giants of his day, so in the face of the New Giants our concern must be to revisit this challenge. Though Beveridge himself never intended the state to have such a dominant role, the twin pillars of social security and the National Health Service (NHS) put government and its associated bureaucracy centre-stage. Despite significant successes, the excesses of monolithic state solutions have too often inhibited progress and generated perverse incentives, deadweight costs and diseconomies of scale. Where many other nations saw the writing on the wall at the end of the 1970s and began to decentralise, in the UK – in England in particular – creeping centralisation has exacerbated a sense that big government keeps getting it wrong.
Perhaps the conjunction of ‘welfare’ and ‘state’ has been the problem? Beveridge himself wrote a later report in 1948 about the importance of ‘voluntary action’ and the value of citizen action in providing “services of a kind which often money cannot buy”. Notions of voluntarism have always played a role in British society and in the past decade have been characterised through the concepts of co-production, asset-based community development, the Big Society, or the RSA’s own ideas of ‘social productivity’. Most recently, the government’s civil society strategy argued that “a strong partnership of government, business, finance, and communities will help society rise to the enormous opportunities of our times”. It would be wrong to ignore the nuances implied in different approaches, but whatever perspective we might wish to take on the relationship between state and voluntary action, few would doubt its central significance in the well-being and prosperity of a good society.
In 1852, the RSA supported mechanics' institutions - groups of workers who pooled their money to fund lectures, classes, libraries, and museums - by forming a national union of the institutions.
However, in recent years, despite imaginative attempts to galvanise social action, it has been difficult for civil society to do much more than mitigate the consequences of sharp reductions in public expenditure. A decade of austerity has plunged health and social care systems into regular crises and caused many councils to close down whole systems of local social support such as children’s centres, libraries and voluntary sector grant-giving. It is not that civil society hasn’t stepped up: food banks have proliferated, largely to mitigate the unintended consequences of Universal Credit, community businesses have formed to take over post offices and the like, and local ‘homelessness partnerships’ have been developed to support the growing numbers of people evicted by private landlords and sleeping on the street. But in too many cases, social action has simply involved picking up the pieces of a fracturing system.
With Government spending on public services as a proportion of GDP, now below 40 percent, the UK is falling into what Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, describes as the “third division” of European nations, along with Estonia and Ireland. The struggle to recover from the global financial crisis and a decade of austerity, and facing up to the New Giants, has stirred those who might advocate the RSA values of humanism, autonomy and universalism to a new mission.
Our vision is of a society where citizens, businesses and governments work together, in policy and in practice, to tackle inequalities of income and wealth, of health and wellbeing and of place, power and exclusion: a new social settlement that reconciles welfare with opportunity and social action.
Just as the New Giants on which we focus are closely interrelated and have many faces and dimensions, so a new social settlement necessarily involves coordinated activity across different disciplines and sectors and at different spatial scales, from the very local to the global.
Tackling economic insecurity
A shared endeavour to ensure that everyone has the capability to participate in economic, political and social life should be at the heart of any new settlement. Other colleagues at the RSA are investigating and experimenting with what this means in our education and skills systems and in a world of work now increasingly affected by new technologies and artificial intelligence. If notions of ‘inclusive growth’ are to be anything other than wishful soundbites, then towns and cities across the country need the courage and entrepreneurialism to experiment with radical ideas and action on the ground.
One such idea is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Beveridge’s welfare state was predicated upon the principle that every citizen deserved a level of economic security to support them and their families through the ups and downs of life. However, the concept of conditionality that has increasingly shaped today’s benefits system has failed to enhance claimants’ motivation to work while being harmful to their mental and physical health. For example, the controversial Universal Credit system, is itself becoming a source of deep insecurity and as such the very inverse of what Beveridge originally intended.
UBI, on the other hand, is not dependent on income and so is not means-tested. It is a basic platform on which people can build their lives – whether they want to earn, learn, care or set up a business – and, crucially, it can be embedded in systems of wider community support. Experiments in Finland, Kenya and elsewhere suggest it might just work. The RSA wants to champion further experiments in the UK and is already working with local authorities in Scotland to test the feasibility of this radical new approach. A new social settlement would see the introduction of a benefits system designed to tackle economic insecurity, not make it worse.
We are interested in other practical experiments that stimulate more shared prosperity too. The RSA’s work on inclusive growth is concerned with building community wealth, pioneering new experiments in economic democracy and developing a more radical orientation towards future sustainability, working with a wide range of local areas to make tackling inequalities a key priority of local industrial strategies.
Transforming public services
Another key plank of Beveridge’s welfare state was the notion of what we have come to call ‘public services’, the NHS being the most celebrated example. In recent times the RSA has devoted much effort to understanding the developing relationship between citizen and state in the realm of public service provision. Our work on ‘health as a social movement’, for example, identified eight key principles to give people more control over the resources in their communities that affect health and well-being. As our health needs become more complex, so we need to move away from the big levers of the central state towards more agile approaches to commissioning and care.
If our systems are to change, a new generation of ‘public entrepreneurs’ will have to be willing to break down the silos between public, private and third-sector agencies and overcome the resistance to change so often found in current systems. There are already great examples of community care being delivered by self-managed teams worthy of support such as the Wellbeing Teams in Ashton and Wigan or the Bay Care Group in Torbay. The symptoms of social isolation and the challenges of mental health and well-being are, by their very nature, highly complex and current types of service provision struggle to adequately respond. Across the public sector a transformation in areas such as commissioning and regulation will be required. And public servants need public entrepreneurship woven into their curricula and training programmes.
As enterprising as we might be with our future public services, there are limits to what can be achieved as the public spending pot gets smaller relative to GDP and the demands of an ageing society grow. Despite numerous reviews about the future costs of health and social care, we seem no closer to any politically palatable and sustainable solutions. With the moral sentiment of the nation now tilting away from further austerity, there can be a more open public debate about how we pay for more effective public services. A new social settlement could reset ambitions for the proportion of GDP we are collectively prepared to invest in our public services.
Supporting social movements in health and care.
The power of place and the place of power
Even if a new social settlement is to recast a national approach to economic security and public services, we know that results will vary across the country. The UK is far from united and has greater levels of regional inequality than any other European nation. This is in no small part due to the runaway dominance of London over the past few decades. The city’s status as a global hub for financial services means it is propped up by preferential policy treatment and disproportionate public and philanthropic spending. While London overshadows other big cities, the differences between cities and our smaller towns, and coastal and rural areas are also growing. And even within our towns and cities, local inequalities abound, with struggling neighbourhoods sitting sometimes just yards from much more prosperous places.
We must look again at how local housing markets perpetuate inequality and economic insecurity and the role of neighbourhoods and their so-called ‘social infrastructure’ play such important roles in supporting healthy and connected communities.
None of this can be dictated from Westminster or Whitehall. For too long, concerns about postcode lotteries have been used to hoard power in central government, when in fact it is centralised policymaking that has so damaged economic productivity and public service reform and caused the local inequalities such policies were apparently designed to address. A new settlement would involve a comprehensive devolution agreement between central and local government in England that gives combined authorities and reconstituted regions the kinds of power and fiscal freedoms currently only afforded to the devolved nations.
A call for citizens’ assemblies to renew democracy.
There is much to do in designing such an agreement. The recently launched UK2070 Commission has made a powerful case for a greater role for spatial strategies to tackle regional inequalities and devolve public investment. With the Peterloo bicentenary on the horizon, we will also work with the People’s Powerhouse movement to put citizens centre stage in the driving the future of the Northern economy.
Passing power downwards is vital, and it will only make a difference if it is accompanied by deep democratic reform. With new powers must come new accountabilities and a democratic system that is alive to the opportunities of new cultural norms and technologies. Many have campaigned for change on different fronts, from party funding to voting reform to reconstituting the House of Lords, and the RSA’s chief executive, Matthew Taylor, has argued for a shared campaign for deliberative democracy as a ‘gateway reform’ in the transformation to a new democratic system.
There is huge merit in this argument. Deliberative experiments such as citizens’ juries and assemblies have been used in Ireland, Australia and elsewhere to address the kinds of complex social and economic challenges that characterise 21st century Britain. Had we reached deeper into the democratic toolbox, a ‘Peoples Assembly on Brexit’ rather than to a referendum, to address Britain’s highly sophisticated relationship with the European Union we might have been able to avoid the deep divisions we see now. Deliberative democracy as a practical means of reaching beyond shallow public opinion and rebuilding political trust is an idea whose time has come. Our new social settlement could involve a Deliberative Democracy Bill supporting three national deliberative assemblies each year, each one leading to further parliamentary debate and action, as well as action locally and regionally.
From Hastings to Glasgow, Oldham to Swindon, Cambridge to London, Britain’s New Giants are looming large, foreshadowed by Brexit uncertainty and a decade of austerity. Other nations have managed to move past so-called ‘peak inequality’ and so can we. To do so will require a shared endeavour, with every person recognising their common humanity, every place given its due autonomy and every public institution committed to more inclusive service provision.
Recasting notions of ‘welfare’ – human flourishing - in a post-crash, post-Brexit Britain may seem a daunting task. Public, private and third-sector entrepreneurs can rise to the challenge and, through their collective intelligence and collaborative design, lay out a new social settlement – in policy and in practice – to shape the rest of this century collectively and democratically, just as Beveridge and his collaborators shaped the last, albeit as elites. 21st century enlightenment will be based on a new shared settlement, beyond reports and legislation alone but energised by widespread civic renewal. The New Giants will need more than David and a sling if they are to be slayed. It will require a cast of millions.
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