Conference season is back with a vengeance, each political party setting out its vision for the future. Setting out a road map to recovery is going to be a challenging task for any government, but this is what Boris Johnson endeavoured to do at this year’s Conservative Party Conference, the first face to face such event for some time! His key message has been that he will level up the country, in economic terms – and in terms of opportunity. The argument goes that if we can better invest in infrastructure and training across the country and increase productivity (getting more output for the same input of money and labour), we will see a country which is fairer. Everywhere should be a great place to live and work for a good wage. If it were, fewer people would be moving to find work and house prices should level out. House prices in Devon might even fall in relative terms!
Of course, this will be much harder to deliver than it sounds. While there were plenty of announcements at conference, there is not – yet – a clear set of well thought through policies to deliver this vision. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. For me the challenge for us in the South West is to make sure we are recognised as being both a region in need and a region of huge potential! Right now, we fall into the worst possible place – a desirable place to live – with huge housing costs – but a very low wage structure. We are right at the bottom of the productivity scale, which should make us a key area for investment by both government and the private sector.
So how is the government going to drive up productivity, creating the high wage economy, highly skilled workforce resulting in a better quality of life, and a smaller gap between wages and house prices? The theory goes that if you increase skill levels and better incentivise hard work through pay, businesses will create more goods to sell using the same number of people. It becomes a virtuous circle. As businesses sell more for less cost, they can continue to invest in their people, their training and their wages. Prices should remain stable. But this investment will also need to be in supporting infrastructure – and technology. And all this with an eye to what the world may look like in future decades.
So, the starting point is to make work pay and to incentivise employers to invest in their staff and their training. We hear talk of an increase in the minimum wage. That would be a great start. The government has announced a teachers salary premium of up to £3,000 per teacher in high demand areas of the country, and subjects that need teachers. Over a year ago the Plan for Jobs was launched to help people back into work, earn more and gain the skills to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow. Many schemes have been extended and new ones announced. The Kickstart scheme, the JES scheme, the Youth Offer and the apprenticeship hiring incentives have all been extended. Work coach support has been expanded providing a new work offer for those aged over 50, and prioritising those coming off of furlough through Job Finding Support. We know there are the jobs out there! In parallel, employers will need to make their jobs more attractive.
And we need both the public and private sectors to become more efficient, and to embrace what technology can do, to do things better, faster and at a lower cost to the benefit of us all as consumers. A good example of this is the review into health and social care leadership. Too often our health and care leaders are disempowered by bureaucracy and left without the means to truly transform people’s health outcomes and without the accountability that will help drive performance. As we continue to ask more of our wonderful NHS, we need to give it the tools to do that. Alongside this we need to see more people joining the NHS and delivering social care – and fewer leaving. We have to face up to and remove the disincentives of working into your 50s and 60s.
The transport team and the technology teams in government need to put their heads together. We can’t change the geography of Devon but we can rethink how and where people work and the technology that is needed to support that. Our internet coverage is infinitely better than it was 10 years ago – but that is certainly not enough! We have some physical challenges to rolling out full fibre – satellite, radio and more have been tried. But technology has not given us the answer yet. And travel we must, but with the number of roads, keeping them safe to use and reducing our carbon footprint is a huge challenge. Efficient and effective generation of energy and its storage remain big challenges. Electricity, while clean itself, often comes from a “dirty “pedigree. Nuclear energy - by fusion, not fission – must be the way forward. It’s clean, emission free – and the UK is leading the charge in its development. But the game changer will be finding a new non-battery mechanism to store energy, and a way of storing unused solar and wind power which is currently lost to us.
We are at the start of a journey – out of the fearful lockdown caves into the sunny moorlands of hope and opportunity. It can be a reality – but it will take all of us to achieve it. Government can’t achieve this on its own.
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