Build Back Better – What’s it Going to Take Scotland?
By Katherine Trebeck (the Wellbeing Economy Alliance) & Peter Kelly (The Poverty Alliance).
This year started with masks and it is likely to end with masks.
As Scottish people woke up on Hogmanay morning, Australians were going to bed to the latest news of the bushfires spreading across the east coast of the country, taking people’s homes, wildlife and acres and acres of native vegetation with them.
In Australia’s capital city, Canberra, the rolling hills surrounding it meant smoke from nearby blazes settled in the city streets, endangering the lungs of locals. Many went out to buy masks and the ones of apparently high enough spec to filter out the carcinogenetic particles quickly sold out.
And now multiple governments are telling their citizens that wearing masks is part of the steps they need to take to control the transmission of covid-19, part of the so-called ‘new normal’ we’re all going to have to fall into step with.
And as lockdown measures are slowly, hesitantly wound back, attention is being turned to how economies can recover from one of the biggest kicks in the guts it is possible to imagine: workers and customers being told to stay home.
The stakes are high – people have lost jobs, businesses are no longer viable, and personal and government debts have stacked up. Emergency measures cannot continue indefinitely – in due course the direction is going to have to be set for the post-covid economy.
What covid-19 revealed was that the economy of pre-covid days was one that stood on the shoulders of an army of low paid workers eking out a livelihood in very precarious work. The early stages of lockdown revealed that what kept communities ticking over was the foundational economy, local supply chains, and the generosity and kindness of neighbours helping each other get by.
What will ensure Scotland builds back better? Certainly not reverting business as usual – in fact, that will be impossible, what is more likely is a more toxic economic model than the one of pre-covid days. So instead, what is necessary is a proactive, concerted effort to use all the levers the Scottish government has to create a wellbeing economy: one that delivers social justice on a healthy planet.
Scotland has already created of the mechanisms that can enable this – they’ve just been underutilised. Now is the time to breathe life into them, doubling down on the timid steps already being taken rather than ditching them with a misplaced deference to old way of doing things which didn’t require too much prodding to be revealed as inadequate.
Here are some examples:
- Conditionality needs to be the name of the game in government support for businesses. Some businesses merit public funds because they are the sort of enterprises that can play a part in building a wellbeing economy. Some won’t and thus don’t. No business that is unable to demonstrate its relevance to the wellbeing economy agenda should be in line for public funds. But in making that real, fortunately the Scottish Government has a Business Pledge, sitting on the shelf quietly that could be bolstered and used as a lens through which to evaluate the requests for help. The work of Scottish Enterprise constitutes another nascent move that needs more oomph: nurturing more inclusive business models into existence and the 2019 shift in strategy to making ‘job-related grants contingent on fair work practices, including job security and payment of the real living wage’.
- But in contrast to businesses, all people merit public support when the chips are down. So reskilling is needed to help people reposition themselves in a profoundly changed economic landscape. But not just reskilling but providing a backstop so people don’t slip too far as they step into the new reality, via robust social protection. Making permanent the improved resources made available through the Scottish Welfare Fund would be positive, but significantly increasing Child Benefit using Scotland’s scope to top up reserved benefits would provide the cushion that many families have been lacking in recent weeks.
- Communities know what needs to be done: how their localities need to change and what sort of economy will be in service of that. So perhaps the best role of a post-covid state is to underwrite community-led solutions? Again, there are the glimmers of existing practice to build on – not least in the form of the Climate Challenge Fund. Ramping up such initiatives will ensure the activities that emerge as lockdown is lifted are those aligned with sustainability and community need.
- Jobs themselves need to be redesigned – to deliver decent pay (it beggars belief that two in five care workers did not earn the real Living Wage as the corona crisis set in) and to distribute the available paid work more fairly across people who want it. The Scottish Government can encourage this through support for those firms that embrace employing more people rather than working fewer staff harder. For example, business rates could be recalibrated, subsidies and procurement could be better aligned with certain business practices, and basic bread and butter encouragement of necessary practices all matter.
- Covid-19 and the economic disruption it has brought is no reason to put dealing with environmental breakdown on the backburner – in fact, it makes the need even more stark if the likes of Covid-32 and Covid-97 are to be kept at bay. Again, Scotland has the beginnings to build on: ambitious climate targets and the work of the Just Transition Commission to map a way to support communities while powering down those industries incompatible with a low carbon economy. The very existence of Zero Waste Scotland is something to celebrate – a post-covid economy needs to be a circular one. The just transition agenda needs to be at the heart of economic and social policy making as Scotland seeks ways to move into a new economic era without people being left on the wayside.
- Other mechanisms that offer the means to bring about the sort of changes needed, were they just to be drawn on with more vigour, include the Sustainable Procurement duty, the Community Empowerment Act, and the community wealth building efforts. Community wealth building in particular, when combined with the efforts to bolster the population of inclusive business models flagged above, constitutes an important way to ‘get the economy to do more of the heavy lifting’ – or predistribute – resources in a way that is fairer than current circumstances allow.
- The Citizens Assemblies – for example on Scotland’s future and on climate change – are examples of the sort of robust, deliberative mechanisms to distil and develop the views of people in Scotland. With the First Minister talking of having an ‘adult conversation’ about responding to covid-19, the test will be the extent to which they feed into policy decisions and become a core part of decision making strategy.
The goal of a wellbeing economy has been set in the National Performance Framework, the creation of WEGo, the First Minister’s TED talk, and the rhetoric about the February budget being a wellbeing budget (a dubious claim, but the sentiment counts for something).
If the NPF can be used more concertedly to guide the objectives of policy making and accountability of policy making, then the economy coming out of covid will begin to be one that could be described as a wellbeing economy.
If the learnings from others can be harnessed via WEGo and if the bold statements in the First Minister’s TED talk create space for civil servants wanting to be part of the transformation necessary, then the economy coming out of covid will begin to be one that could be described as a wellbeing economy.
And if next year’s budget truly is a wellbeing budget – featuring long term goals, cross-departmental collaboration, with an outcome focus and attending to root causes of wellbeing deficits – then the economy coming out of covid will begin to be one that could be described as a wellbeing economy.
And that brings us to the task force set up to guide the government on economic recovery post-covid. Others have raised an eyebrow at its composition and lack of unusual suspects (and, dare we point out, the lack of expertise on addressing poverty and ways to bolster Scotland’s renewable sector, let alone an economic system change expert). This is surely an own-goal – diversity will enable better ideas. But not wanting to judge it prematurely, its merit will depend on the extent to which it discards outdated recipes, recognises the dual goals of social justice and sustainability and that the best initiatives deliver on both fronts to deliver collective wellbeing for current and future generations.
Scotland has the talk and the templates for building a wellbeing economy. There are tentative moves in the direction of what is necessary. Now is not the time to turn away from them. Now is the time to breathe life into them, roll them out, scale them out and up in order to build back better.