What happened to Build Back Better?

What happened to Build Back Better?

4th January 2023

What happened to Build Back Better? Did we blow it?

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.

This article was first published in the Herald on 27 December 2022.

Somebody asked me the other day, “Do you remember ‘Build Back Better’? Whatever happened to that?” It’s a good question.

BBB was a fever that gripped policy makers and influencers in mid 2020, just after the initial shock of lockdown had worn off. This pandemic, we thought, is awful, but there may actually be a silver lining to it.

Because we looked at what the governments had done: huge policy levers being pulled overnight to deliver massive and very positive change. Furlough! A massive vaccination programme! Homeless people being found accommodation! Money that we’d been told didn’t exist suddenly being funneled to benefit claimants and to employers!

It was, for policy folk, a magical and momentous time. The pandemic, we thought, could be the catalyst for us to create a new Scotland. If we were going to have to re-build our social and economic structures, why not do it in a way that could end the miseries and pain of the pre-pandemic world. Let’s Build Back Better!

My friend’s question prompted me to search out a document CAS submitted at the height of BBB fever: our submission to the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery (AGER), in which we sought to paint in some of the colours of what this new Scotland could look like.

For workers, we imagined a new deal, based on higher wages, better terms and conditions and greater flexibility around caring responsibilities.

In housing. we called for more affordable homes and greater transparency in the private rented sector, with increased data on rents and housing conditions to show up bad landlords and applaud good ones.

When it comes to personal finance, we envisioned a sea-change in Scotland’s whole approach to debt, based on the recognition that a person who is behind on their bills is someone who needs support, not aggressive harassment for money they don’t have. Adopt that approach, we said, and we can help the person to re-pay their arrears and also put an end to the chronic despair people feel under the current out-dated system.

And when it came to the poverty that shames us all, we called for a real conversation about what is an adequate amount of money to live on in Scotland in the 2020s, and about how wages and social security should provide this swiftly and with dignity to those who need it.

On the day we published that document, I wrote about it in my column here in the Herald, stressing that this really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to effect this kind of transformational change. “Our starting point is that returning to the way things were [before the pandemic] is not an option,” I said. “Some of these ideas are radical, and some may seem over-ambitious. But the current crisis will force us to re-order our economy, and that gives us a real chance to make it fairer. But only if we think and act big.”

Well, the post-covid recovery is well underway. And, looking around the policy landscape in Scotland, things seem depressingly similar to what they were before the pandemic hit us. Universal Credit got cut; the furlough scheme is over; mortgages are in crisis and the rental market is pricing more and more people out of it; and energy bills are higher than ever. A cost of living crisis is gripping the country and squeezing household incomes to breaking point.

So what went wrong? Did we think too big that summer? Were we over-ambitious? Did we miss the moment? And is it too late?

Well, I’m a qualified optimist. Yes I’m disappointed by all of the above. But I think there is still time. Scotland’s policy arena is full of good people. I mean seriously, really good people. Smart, hard-working, creative souls with good intentions about how to make a better, fairer Scotland. So the potential must still be there for some kind of BBB.

Why hasn’t it happened then? Well, one problem has been that all of us who were throwing around these ideas then were/are all so busy doing our day jobs that we haven’t been able to hold those ‘blue sky’ discussions about how we can force the sort of change that really improves peoples’ lives. So the ideas - and the passion – of mid 2020 have fizzled a bit.

And then of course there’s the elephant in the room. Money. Who is going to fund all these big changes?

However, the cost of living crisis is a challenge on the scale of the pandemic. It needs the same sort of policy response.

So when the Herald asked me to write about what I want to see in the Scottish policy arena in 2023, I pivot back to the summer of 2020, and to the ideas we spelled out in that AGER report. A better deal for workers, a new approach to debt, more and better social housing, and a real conversation about poverty.

Others had their own ideas of course. So I wonder, can we all come together again, re-capture that same energy, but with a bit more discipline and greater focus on delivery. That of course means a key role for governments, and politicians as well as charities.  

But just as we charities will need to be more disciplined, politicians will also need to be ready to embrace big, bold policy visions. The Scottish government’s focus on tackling child poverty, as re-stated by the Finance Minister last week is certainly welcome. But we should all try to re-capture some of the other BBB ideas as well, and work together to drive actual and significant change on several fronts.

The temptation to quote John Lennon here is gargantuan. But I will resist it. I’ll just say instead that you might think I’m a person who dreams, but there may be others like me. OK maybe I lack John’s poetic elegance but hopefully the point is made.

To mangle the Beatles once again, it’s time to Get Back. Back to the energy and passion of Build Back Better. Only this time, let’s make those big ideas a reality.