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November 25, 2020

Are we in this together? How to make the National Infrastructure Bank support Good Work for all

The Chancellor will soon unveil plans for a new infrastructure strategy to boost post-pandemic growth, fill the gap left by the European Investment Bank, and tackle the UK’s position as top of the league table for measures of regional inequality.

There’s a lot to like about £600bn investment for capital projects, improving connectivity and transport systems and working towards the government’s goal of net-zero emissions. Basing the new National Infrastructure Bank in northern headquarters is a signal that diffusing our ‘geography of discontent' is seriously on the cards. The idea of experimenting with new types of direct investment, as the Future of Work Commission recommended in 2017, is welcome, although the devil may be in the detail.

The investment bank has real potential to transform working lives across the country, if the right priorities and a ‘listening infrastructure’ to enable consultation and review are established too. Money and relocation alone will not transform the north.

The bank should mark a new era of public investment as part of a refreshed Industrial Strategy in which good job creation is a central, cross-cutting policy objective. This is a critical moment in the pandemic, which has sharply revealed the truth that work is the thread that connects people’s lives and everyday experiences to the economy. It is work that connects the state and markets, government and companies, public policy and private investment, illuminating the responsibilities of people, business and government.

The infrastructure bank will need sound principles to guide its establishment and help foster a future of good work across the country. So we propose 5 top priorities:

First, the investment bank should be run independently, with a mandate to consider the impacts of investment on employment and the growth of good quality, local work as primary objectives. This is especially important as we move towards UK-based supply chains.

Second, the essential standards of good work (from the living wage increase to PPE for gig workers) should be required of businesses in receipt of help. Our work has consistently shown that raising the floor of protection will support resilience of communities and the nation as a whole, as well as individuals. This should start with a new deal for key workers, which could be a schedule attached to the forthcoming Employment Bill.

Third, investments in technology, technology infrastructure and technology R&D are likely to be seen as crucial for growth. The government is right about this potential. In a sense, we need a technological revolution more than ever, from the valleys of Wales to Aberdeen. But technology adoption can also drive different types of inequality. Automated technologies, in particular, can simultaneously alter labour market demand and project historic inequalities into the future.

So, technology impact assessments - including equality impact assessments - must be required of those seeking the bank’s support to invest in technology to ensure adoption is human-centred and responsible, and that adverse impacts are addressed as part of the deal.

Fourth, addressing structural inequalities must be put at the heart of the recovery agenda, including the work of the investment bank. This will require more than interventions at traditional ‘pain points’ to access to work, training and progression, although these remain important. Rooting out structural inequalities will require joined-up intervention targeted at vulnerable groups to make sure that social security, labour market, skills, innovation and health policies work to support each other.

To avoid playing catch-up indefinitely, this needs a Work Strategy 5.0 as I proposed to the DWP Committee earlier this month. ‘Work’ inequalities are not just about access, pay and conditions. They are often connected to concentration of resources and mix of economic activities too.

It will also need the government to address our ‘invisible’ infrastructure: updating our legal frameworks to promote accountability and reduce socio-economic and postcode disadvantage.

Finally, the bank should support players at the local level. Experience from managing local lockdowns and poverty reduction shows that integrated, community-based interventions are most effective. So communities and local authorities should be at the heart of plans to encourage entrepreneurship and level things up, developing and operationalising initiatives funded at a local level.

As the PM, a former Mayor, resets his party with the Chancellor, an entrepreneur, the establishment of the new National Infrastructure Bank is the time to boost the notion and practice of an ‘entrepreneurial’ state, as we argue should be driven locally here. The employment, good work and productivity goals of the infrastructure bank must be integrated in the forthcoming devolution white paper, and must allow for allow higher levels of devolved finances and decision-making.

Ultimately, the goal for the new bank and economy must be to serve the needs of its people through better health and wellbeing, as our Future of Work Commission (which brought together economists, technologists, philosophers and epidemiologists over the summer) has argued. These 5 priorities, grounded in a vision for future good work, may help the government achieve this - and fulfil its promise to the Workington Man.

Author

Anna Thomas

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