“Infrastructure” conjures up a big hole in the ground and some very heavy machinery, often with a politician in a hard hat standing in front of it. Or a little name with a big price tag – like HS2, T5, FTTH or Crossrail. We spend serious money on huge transport, communications and energy projects, all in the name of economic security and prosperity – even if it isn’t always entirely clear where, or when, the promised benefits will materialise.
So what if there was a different kind of infrastructure project, less than a fifth the cost of a new runway at Heathrow, that would create a significant increase in employment for a very large disadvantaged group, spread equitably across the whole country? Surely the Treasury would fall over itself to write the cheque? Especially if there was already a solid international evidence base that it would work.
Well, in fact there is just such a project, and we think it needs to move a long way up the political agenda.
Universal free childcare between the ages of 1 and 5. There may not be any giant drills involved (at least hopefully not!), but if we think about infrastructure as the underpinning stuff that lets everything else work, you can’t do much better than childcare. That’s why Nesta has started a new programme to stimulate innovation in childcare – and why we’re suggesting that the next government takes up universal provision as its first grand project.
Evidence from across the OECD shows that affordable childcare is strongly associated with higher rates of maternal employment, especially for mothers with lower levels of educational attainment and skills. While the UK has a relatively high level of female employment overall, maternal employment lags significantly behind the best performers in the OECD. Over half of working mothers work part-time – one of the highest rates in the OECD. Unemployment and under-employment are particularly high among single mothers, and mothers at the lower end of the labour market – exactly the women who stand to benefit most from free childcare.
Universal free childcare would cost £2.5bn. Tackling maternal under-employment would save .... £2.5bn.
This grand project would be expensive, of course. But consider a few facts. First, the UK government already spends well above the OECD average on childcare – but unlike most other OECD countries, we primarily subsidise demand (through vouchers and tax credits for parents), rather than supply. So there is already a lot of money in the system that could be spent differently, although universal free provision would still cost a further £2.5bn pa.
Second, getting unemployed mothers into decent, living wage jobs would generate significant direct savings in benefits, health and social care costs. In fact, raising the UK’s maternal employment rate to the level of overall female employment would save £2.5bn pa.
For me in my role at Nesta, trying to promote greater inclusion, these are already pretty compelling arguments. But as a father, there’s an argument that’s even more powerful. We know that growing up in poverty is profoundly damaging to children, and that high quality early years care is the best intervention we can provide to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children, with all the long term benefits that means for them, for society and for the economy.
So, a grand infrastructure project that pays for itself, and builds a better society at the same time. Whoever is Chancellor this summer, at least there's one spending decision that really is child’s play.