Centring social and environmental justice at the heart of the recovery: pathways for the UK

by Zayn Meghji, Josie Warden and Riley Thorold

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how ill prepared we are for crises, even for those that we know are coming down the line, be that the high probability of a global pandemic, or the impacts of climate change. It’s also highlighted the extent to which the shameful inequalities that already exist are painfully exacerbated without action.

With so much uncertainty, ways of thinking and acting devised in relative stability no longer seem up to the challenge. We need to be able to respond continually, and to adapt and evolve as we meet challenges. Much has been said about a ‘v-shaped recovery’ — bouncing back and continuing as we were — but this assumes nothing has changed, and that nothing needs to change. We need to act for the long-term, to ensure our actions now build cumulatively towards a future that we need to be able to face, one that looks like only more change.

For policymakers needing to act today in response to the impacts of lockdown, this can feel like a tall order, but starting from now there are ideas and interventions out there which can set us on this more considered path.

In the coming months, businesses and sectors feeling the economic effects of the lockdown will likely seek government financial support over and above what is offered by the UK’s government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CIBLS). Such bailouts should be recognised as what they are: down payments on the future.

In the case of such bailouts, we must therefore ensure that public money is leveraged to drive a green and fair future. It is essential that we learn the lessons from the financial crash, when bailouts served only to widen inequality, doing little or nothing to address the fundamental failings of the financial system.

As Rishi Sunak said in his speech, ‘this has never just been a question of economics, but of values’, and this is just the same for bailing out businesses when a restoration of the status quo means climate breakdown, and widespread inequality. We know that businesses are going to experience an accelerated rate of change in the short- and long- term, so it is about building the capacity of businesses and sectors to manage this change in a way that is fair and inclusive. Starting with any UK business which requires a bailout due to the pandemic, the government should develop a British model of co-determination and legislate so all firms with more than 20 workers must set up a works council that ensures a structure within companies for worker voice.

And of course, the UK government should follow the example of other governments in including requirements for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and other green measures in those sectors that we know will require radical transformation, such as aviation, agriculture and car-manufacturing. This is about securing practical action towards the UK’s own commitment to be net-zero by 2050. These transitions will inevitably impact on the people involved in these sectors, which is why it is essential that government prepares the sectors for dialogue and deliberation by introducing a model of co-determination.

These schemes are not just about rebuilding our economy. They must also rebuild the trust that was burnt in 2008. Under the CIBLS scheme, large businesses are barred from paying dividends of cash bonuses until the loans are repaid. Any rescue packages should come with a similar moratorium on dividends and bonuses for a 12-month period to ensure that public money used to support businesses in the face of long-term collective challenges.

A robust response to the pandemic must not conflict with long-term approaches and mindsets. The pandemic has highlighted the unequal effects of economic instability on people in the UK. Those in already precarious situations have borne the brunt of the impact, and the UK government must focus on assisting citizens as well as businesses through recovery, as well as pursuing the reforms necessary to even long-standing inequalities.

If we are to build a society with shoulders broad enough to cope with environmental challenges, we must ensure technologies such as automation do not push down on the already struggling. We can equip businesses and sectors to weather these changes internally, but we must also support individuals and communities more widely. This can be achieved through a Universal Basic Income support, and by enabling localised and tailored employment and skills support.


We know that many households in the UK do not have substantial savings, and that savings will play a crucial role in recovery and protecting standards of livelihood. In addition to this, RSA work on economic insecurity has highlighted that many people are pessimistic about the deteriorating quality of work. Insecurity is both a financial and a psychological phenomenon, and both types play a role in the long-term health of the economy.

To provide a safety net that is truly resilient, we should establish a universal basic income. Creating a UK-wide universal basic income of £5,000 a year could be funded by replacing Universal Credit (while retaining other benefits), modifying existing tax entitlements such as the personal allowance and new, redistributive taxes on Big Tech.

Tailoring employment and skills support

To build capacity effectively, we must appreciate the importance of place. The pandemic has brought into focus the ineffectiveness of nationwide measures and approaches. In a future beset by climate change, inequalities of place only become more acute. The impact of sea level rise will follow the typography of our landscape, but it will also intersect with typographies of wealth of all kinds.

Schemes supporting employment, skills and training in England are currently heavily centralised, with little opportunity for local areas to tailor them to their needs. Although some locally rooted schemes exist, this system is unable to deal with the localised challenges posed by large scale industrial transitions. The system is therefore serving as a barrier to ‘levelling up’. We should pursue a package of financial support and measures which devolve national skills and employment schemes and their funding to local authorities, to enable regionally targeted strategies. Regional strategies should be overseen by boards of local authority representatives. In the UK, this would include support delivered via the Shared Prosperity Fund.

The UK Government’s Plan for Jobs states that it will double the number of work coaches in Job Centres, but this is a change in scale, not a change in kind. Work coaches may be able to get people back into the kinds of jobs that they have lost, but how about recasting this role as part of regional transitions towards low-carbon work through skills development, retraining and job matching schemes. A programme of this sort is considered in the Local Government Authority’s Work Local proposal.

With the UK government’s confirmation that the Furlough Scheme will not be extended past October, we can expect unemployment to rise dramatically before the end of the year. The job retention bonus and various other measures will soften the impact, but it will be a crisis to reckon with. The UK Government’s ‘green jobs scheme’ is effectively an investment programme, spending £1bn on making public buildings greener and £2bn on a Green Homes Grant for homeowners and landlords. Elsewhere, Boris Johnson repeated in a recent speech the government plan to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year across the UK by 2025.

These interventions, although low hanging fruit, present an enormous opportunity if carefully designed. Unlike centralised infrastructure schemes, decentralised activity such as house retrofitting will need to respond to diverse housing conditions and will require a range of skills. The construction sector is not necessarily used to working in this way, and collaboration across government departments, businesses and local authorities will be key to the success of the Green Homes Grant. Skills and services which care, repair and maintain infrastructure are integral to a transition to a circular and low carbon economy — this programme could represent a step in the right direction.

Although tree planting can have a positive impact on factors such as biodiversity and air pollution, the government’s focus on urban trees is narrow. A broader question to ask could be: how might nature-based solutions become an investment in regional economies? If taken as temporary employment, a tree planting or flood defence scheme could form a stepping stone on a pathway designed to take workers towards meaningful jobs, apprenticeships and placements in the local economy. These pathways can be designed with localities to ensure that learners are connected with opportunities that meet the needs of the area. Our Cities of Learning model offers a framework for this.

The government’s Plan for Jobs puts £100 million towards roads but has little to say on investment in other forms of transport. The public transport sector is in a peculiar position at the moment, reliant on government support, effectively nationalised, and unprofitable in the medium-term. Nonetheless, its role in keeping the economy moving in the short-term is essential, and in the long-term, it has vital role to play in reaching the UK’s net zero target.

The increased role of the government in the transport sector is an opportunity to answer long-standing calls for greater co-ordination and cohesion across the system, particularly in ways that benefit underserved rural communities. Incentives for and investment in smoother interchange between bus and rail, decarbonising the bus fleet, more extensive and regular services in areas that need ‘levelling up’ are all priorities. Elsewhere, rather than bailing out the UK automotive sector, the government could drive demand for electric vehicles using public procurement and incentives for other sectors.

Looking forward, the temporary drop in public transport usage cannot be allowed to cause an exodus to private transport. The government must invest heavily in active transport, acknowledging the interconnection of public and planetary health. We can encourage healthy citizens, while also combatting the harms that come from air pollution and disproportionately impact marginalised communities. Investment must right these wrongs and should consider COVID-19 risk factors such as age, % BAME, obesity levels and the prevalence of other underlying conditions, such as asthma.

At this moment, we must also think widely about how to meet the mobility needs of the public in cities. Shared mobility schemes have low barriers to entry and can help dodge issues of ownership and access. Of course, sector giants such as Uber have a poor track record in many respects, but at a moment where the shared mobility sector is struggling, public partnerships could bring actors to the table to negotiate a shared way forward. Alongside this, local authorities are particularly effective at driving behaviour change in transportation choices. Funding should therefore run through local authorities and could be supplemented after the pandemic using a polluter pays principle.

The Paris Agreement saw the UK commit to Nationally Determined Contributions in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this and the UK’s subsequent net-zero by 2050 commitment, action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is woefully inadequate. In order to meet and exceed these targets, local commitments and achievements should be measured, recognised and encouraged.

Public transport policy, housing policy, spatial planning and other critical functions fall within the remit of UK local and combined authorities. This is also where lots of the most ambitious and committed environmental action is currently taking place. This ambition should be supported and more effectively connected to national climate plans, building a deeper partnership between national and local governments to maximise emissions reductions.

Locally Determined Contributions (LDCs) are a way of capturing local governments’ contributions to national emission reduction strategies (and therefore to international climate agreements). These can be tracked on an independent and centralised international platform, using a set of common metrics. LDCs would encourage bottom-up, locally led strategies and could help to structure an ongoing dialogue between national and local authorities and local residents around emissions reductions. A mandate for the LDCs could be generated through citizen participation and structured deliberation.

Such ideas should be viewed as a broader move to strengthening and recognising local capacity. An important part of this picture is that local funding has been diminished in recent years. Capturing the full potential of LDCs is therefore dependent on central resourcing.

From Black Lives Matter to the school climate strikes to mutual aid networks, there is an evident demand for more meaningful engagement in local and national politics. And as societies reflect on the decisions taken in the past months and face up to the daunting and profound decisions that lie ahead, questions of power and voice have newfound resonance. Who gets to decide the future?

This is a matter of both ethics and efficacy. As the pandemic exposes and exacerbates inequalities between the lives of different groups and historic inequalities come to the fore through demonstration and protest, it is crucial for public policy to reflect and account for this diversity of lived experience. This requires inclusive citizen participation and deliberation at all levels to inform the immediate crisis response and the longer-term recovery measures that will shape the future. Well-designed deliberative processes are insulated from pressures of party and money, meaning sound deliberation and long-term thinking can take centre stage. This can help to generate the kind of hard-headed, future-oriented policy we need to tackle the climate emergency.

A ‘national conversation’ about life after Covid could be composed of distributed local conversations and national deliberative exercises. This could be modelled on existing proposals for a Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy and the 2019 French Grand Debat, in which local and regional exercises informed a national deliberation about the country’s future.

On issues of green recovery, LDCs provide a common framework for this kind of ‘national conversation’, helping to structure local decision making and facilitate vertical coordination between tiers of government.

National, regional and local authorities could even consider establishing standing citizens’ panels, to oversee the Post-Covid transition and the path towards Net Zero. Toronto City’s Reference Panels and the Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien (the German speaking region of Belgium) are models that could be drawn upon and adapted in the creation of these panels.

To read more about what a regenerative future means and how we might create a system that can respond more effectively to complex challenges, read our article here.

We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.

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