Roads and rails are welcome, but a healthy economy needs care

Date Posted: Thursday 5th December 2019

#GE2019WomenandGirlsElectionSocial Infrastructure

Conservatives and Labour have dominated the airwaves discussing their plans for transport investment on bus services and trains, especially in the North of England. But have they considered how transport is used differently by women and men? And will they count spending on care, health and education as social infrastructure: it is not just roads and rails that get us to work but high quality child, health and social care.

Labour are pledging to renationalise the rail and cut prices by a third as well as bringing bus services into local ownership and providing free bus travel for under 25s. Meanwhile, the Conservatives announced they will spend £4 billion on transport in the North of England to improve connectivity and productivity.

If this election had a theme song it would certainly be ‘hey big spender’ and transport is one of the big areas where the main parties are promising huge investment. The Conservative manifesto promises an ‘infrastructure revolution’ of £100 billion. The Liberal Democrat manifesto includes ‘Investing £130 billion in infrastructure’ as one of its priorities. Labour is committed to a national transformation fund of £400 billion including £250 billion for a green transformation fund.

All parties pledge to spend but their aims and priorities are different. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party all link infrastructure investment to their environmental aims, like zero carbon targets for example. However, all view infrastructure in terms of physical things like buildings, roads, rail and telecommunications.  

Spending on physical infrastructure is very welcome: public transport, renewable energy and carbon neutral housing are all essential if we are to tackle the climate emergency. Public investment could have an important role to play in mitigating the likely economic impact of a hard Brexit, creating new jobs. And increased public spending marks a long overdue change of direction away from austerity policies; with more money for hospitals and schools.

But buildings and new technology are only part of what is needed to restore our public services. It isn’t just the railways, hospitals and school buildings that ensure a healthy, educated population but the services they deliver, including the staff that work in them. Our economy is as dependent on social infrastructure, such as health, education and care services as it is on physical infrastructure of roads, rail, telecoms and the buildings in which these services are delivered. So, at this election we are calling on all parties to invest in social as well as physical infrastructure.

Our work at the Women’s Budget Group has shown that this would not only benefit society by addressing the crisis in social care or our overstretched NHS. It would also benefit the economy and help close the gender employment gap.

Investment of 2% of GDP in the care sector would create twice as many jobs as the same investment in construction. In total, up to 1.5 million jobs could be created in the UK from investment of 2% of GDP in care industries, compared to 750,000 for an equivalent investment in construction. Investment in care would increase women’s employment rate by up to 8 points, helping close the gender employment gap.

Investment in high quality, free, universal childcare would create up to 1.7m full-time equivalent job, increasing overall employment by 4.3 percentage points and women’s employment rate by 6.4 percentage points. Such investment would largely pay for itself; increased tax revenue and reduced social security spending would cover between 95% and 89% of the costs of this investment.

Unlike most other forms of investment spending, investment in care also increases the labour force, by enabling those doing unpaid care to take jobs or increase their level of employment. We know that women’s unpaid care is closely linked to both women’s and children’s poverty. Women do more unpaid care work than men, which reduces the amount of time they have for paid work, meaning they earn less, own less and are more likely to be poor. And for the most part children are poor because their mothers are poor, so investment in care services also has a key role to play in tackling child poverty.  

Transport services has been cut dramatically in line with cuts to local government since 2010 so investment in roads and rail are welcome, but to achieve gender equality we need to reshape what we think of as ‘infrastructure.’ Investment in social infrastructure might sound like an esoteric policy phrase but it actually holds the keys to reversing some of the devastating impact that these cuts have had, and help build a  productive, happy, healthy and gender equal economy.