In his New Year interview with The Observer today, Gordon Brown talks about creating 100,000 jobs by a programme of public works, focused on school repairs, new rail links, hospital projects, investment in eco-friendly projects and the broadband infrastructure.
This is all eminently sensible, but should really be on a much greater scale. The 100,000 jobs presumably equates to the £3 billion of public investment included in last month’s PBR statement. I argued then that the balance was wrong with too great an emphasis on boosting consumer spending by cutting VAT.
Nothing that has happened since alters my view.
Yes, there has been a splurge of High Street buying – mainly of imported goods (this will no doubt help maintain world employment levels, but won’t do a lot in the UK and will further push down the value of the £ against the € and the $). Interestingly, elsewhere in The Observer, the excellent Bill Keegan (delightfully appointed a CBE in the New Year honours) points out that much of this High Street spending may have been overseas visitors capitalising on the low exchange rate.
Instead, we should be treating the economic situation as an opportunity to invest in the UK’s long-term future. The Government should set a series of infrastructure objectives to be achieved over the next four or five years and put in place the resources and mechanisms for these objectives to be met. For example, local councils could be tasked to achieve better insulation and energy efficiency in the housing stock in their areas, a major programme to further improve school buildings and health care facilities should be instituted, every home, every school and every NHS facility should be cabled and enabled to have high speed broadband access with public wi-fi access in every town centre etc..
The opportunity should be taken to improve skills and equip young people (and indeed any adult) with the training needed to achieve their aspirations in the modern world.
No doubt this is ambitious, but – as Barack Obama has preached about ‘The Audacity of Hope’ – perhaps in the UK a Labour Government should dare to put that hope into practice.