The Search for Inclusive Growth

To the ambition of growth, long the goal of local policy makers, have been added a variety of qualifying adjectives over the years. Sustainable growth, having once been a fad has now entered the lexicon as an established term of art referring to a growth imperative that is environmentally responsible yet also in some sense socially responsible, building communities that people want to live in. Today, our concern is with socially inclusive growth.

The reasons for the need for inclusion are clear enough in the literature. Some one in six of the UK population or 15.4 million live in absolute poverty including 4.6 million children with no sign of any reduction in overall poverty and increases in child poverty now anticipated. On this basis the self-satisfied claim that we have in any sense fixed the British disease  rings a bit hollow to the many communities where poverty has become a part of the post-industrial malaise. Indeed, what we once thought was a one-off shock to communities dependent for generations on industries now departed now looks more and more like an inter-generational curse and attention is rightly and urgently focusing on what we can do about it. 

We need to be clear both about what we mean by socially inclusive growth and how we think we’re going to achieve it. The first bit is easier than the second. At the heart of the aim is an essentially meritocratic argument that people should not be materially affected by their neighbourhood, class, ethic, gender or other attributes other than their ability and willingness to participate in the betterment of their own, family and community life. In other words, people should be able to fulfil their potential and society’s role is to smooth the path to enabling this to happen. In too many places we have failed.  Traditional jobs are lost and a downward spiral ensues. Traditional white working class communities feel disenfranchised. Minority ethnic groups suffer routine discrimination and both of are often concentrated in places that feel blighted. The goal is to deliver a model of growth which includes all people and places in an upwardly mobile manner, delivering greatest rewards to those with the ability to and who strive to succeed. Though not straightforward (since upward and downward social mobility always co-exist), defining the goal is the easier part of what faces us.

I’ve met policymakers from many if not most OECD countries over the last few years. From the most Anglo Saxon models of Australia and the USA to Scandinavia through work in Denmark and Norway I’ve heard at first hand the same cri de coeur, a plea for innovative ideas for delivering socially inclusive growth. Nor is this new. The UK has been acutely aware of the need to deliver for diverse post-industrial communities for two generations, maybe longer. And it has become a more urgent task too. Politics is under challenge from populism and anti-establishment anti-politics which in different ways are feeding off the alienation of communities whose weakened sense of economic citizenship is eroding their political citizenship too. If the economy isn’t delivering, the politicians who are held accountable will be blamed and rightly so. And this is where the problem lies. A survey of post war policy doesn’t give the most obviously strong sense of how policy can be applied at scale to tackle the problem of inclusive growth faced by the countries of the industrialised world: we are dealing here with one of the biggest problems of twenty first century capitalism.

This needs to be a time of action. Purposeful thought is needed bringing together academics and policy makers from different traditions. Business has a role to play. Community actors matter in this. We need to listen to real people too. We need them to turn deliberation into ideas and ideas into action. That is why the RSA Commission on Socially Inclusive Growth is so very important. To return to the start, if our debate about sustainable growth has seen the beginning of a move towards an appropriately radical shift in how we use carbon-based fuels so as to reduce the damaging effects of emissions, the move towards a more socially inclusive model of growth is every bit as profound. If even societies with the most progressive and high taxation are wrestling with the intractability of the problem of inclusive growth, the usual retort that a more progressive tax system and a beneficent welfare model will deliver looks a bit shaky, even if in the UK it may well be an important part of the mix. But this is just one illustration of what is even truer in cities: namely that many of the policies we have tried over a very long period simply don’t deliver what they are intended to. Others that do deliver do so at costs that are in net terms very expensive and probably no longer affordable. Indeed, as we face the challenge of inclusive growth our cities are between a rock and a hard place: between doing things that don’t deliver value on the one hand and on the other, taking on the orthodoxies that led us here.

My choice is with the latter but in a very specific sense.  The mainstream regeneration industry, advised by generations of urban policy advisers has insisted that physical regeneration can deliver successful communities. The evidence suggests otherwise except in a small number of cases where the specifics of the local economy provided the income to reconnect them to jobs and growth. The counter argument from economists is that it is not places but people that matter. All else remaining equal, an exclusive focus on people is likely to lead to sharper and sharper divisions between places, between communities and within cities; as long as the differences within and between our towns and cities remain as stark as they do, the sorting effect of people choosing where to live will see to that. As policy has oscillated between these different views, with policies to develop human capital, welfare policy, housing and regeneration run to different world views, let alone local plans, it is little wonder that we’ve spent billions and failed to deliver for the people (or their communities) whose restiveness is now too loud to ignore. There is a path through this. There has to be and we need to find it quickly learning from what has worked using insights from research and practice the world over. The alternative, if we don’t deliver, could well be a new politics but one that harks to a golden age that, if it ever existed, can’t easily be re-created, and the cost of trying could be ruinously damaging.

This is the challenge before the Commission on Inclusive Growth. It is the same challenge that faces every post industrial city in the world. Perhaps the academic community has spent too long talking to itself. If so, the Commission could not be more timely. Its recommendations need to be grounded in existing research but reflective of the views of people too. Above all its effects need to be felt in the lives of communities across the UK.