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Building social infrastructure: why levelling up must include enabling local places to invest in future generations

Published

4 Mar 2021

What counts as investment? asks EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne. ‘It is not just capital spending that should be seen as investment, Jo says. ‘Revenue spending that is used to invest in future generations should also count as investment.’

Yesterday’s budget announcement saw the launch of the prospectus for the Levelling Up fund, which enables local places to bid to invest in transport, regeneration and town centre investment, and cultural investment. This focus on physical infrastructure that will make a ‘visible impact in local areas’ is much needed, I am sure. But so is investment in social infrastructure - ‘the systems required to meet local and strategic needs and contribute towards a good quality of life’. Or to put it simply, investing in children’s early years, school readiness, children and young people’s resilience and mental health, and evidence-based services to support the most vulnerable families.

We know that this type of investment pays off, for the economy as well as for society. The long-term ‘pay-off’ to society may be particularly large where early intervention offers the potential for labour market gains, such as improvements in employment and earnings. For example, there is strong evidence showing that children’s cognitive and behavioural problems lead to lower qualifications and life-time earnings. Even small improvements in attainment, particularly for children at risk of the poorest academic outcomes, have the potential for large economic pay-offs. But such improvements depend on local places being able to close the gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers.

That’s where the Levelling Up fund could so powerfully help, by including investment in social infrastructure, and by enabling towns and cities to bid for revenue expenditure as well as capital expenditure. It is not just capital spending that should be seen as investment: revenue spending that is used to invest in future generations should also count as real, meaningful investment.

The recent appointment of Sir Michael Barber to lead a delivery review for the government, focused on the domestic policy agenda, provides a real opportunity here, to help define what levelling up includes, and to show how social infrastructure investment can be part of levelling up, alongside economic, physical and cultural investment.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is chief executive at EIF.