It’s time to skill-up and invest to rebuild Britain for the future

Build back better. But let’s start with a mass prevention of homelessness.

I come from a family of incredibly useful men. That wasn’t difficult because I had five handy brothers, and the only useless ones in the family, in terms of building and making things, and repairing things, were me and my mum. We seemed to break things rather than mend them.

We were dazed and confused by electric plugs and wallpapering. We got as much paint on us as on the wall. We were never dragooned into doing more than washing up and sweeping floors. Even my mother’s cooking left much to be desired. She could make nothing out of something, the exact opposite of what it should be. My dad was the better cook; my brothers excelled at it too. 

My cackhandedness was clearly demonstrated when I was six and we lived opposite an enormous bombsite where the Nazis had reduced streets to rubble. I was the adventurer and climbed the fence to build myself a Wild West camp.

I got odd bits of bomb-damaged wood and made a hideaway, only for my elder brothers then to climb the fence too. Fearful at first of breaking some golden rule, they then built a splendid temple-like structure that would probably last a dozen years. You could walk on the roof, you could even jump on it. It was sound. Yet mine could be overturned by a pigeon flapping its wings too enthusiastically.

What happened to that generation, which I came from? What happened to that clever working class that could make and construct things as children? 

Well, they grew up and got jobs and the jobs never took them anywhere. It marooned them in a world of semi-skilled or unskilled employment. Some of them learned skills on apprenticeships but most took the most well-paid jobs that had little future, little scope for improvement, and often little skill enhancement. A cheap wage economy that gave them just enough to marry and have children in poorly provided-for housing; dreaming of a new council house whose waiting list they were on from the moment their wives or girlfriends got pregnant.

If only the world they’d been prepared for had continued. If only Great Britain had remained a rundown, leaky-roofed, uneducated paradise. Then perhaps the education levels they were given up until the age of 15 would have sufficed.

But things changed. Great Britain became slightly modern. Yet a class of people produced with a kind of postwar slide-rule thinking stayed where they were. And so did their children. Occasionally one or two would rise and become photographers or actors, writers or hairdressers of renown. Most got on with a life better than their prewar forefathers, but were cheap labour for the economy to draw upon – or not.

In the Midlands, the North and Wales, a hard reality was about to fall upon them. As the Sixties turned to the Seventies, relatively well-paid workers in steel and shipbuilding were led into confrontation with state employers – nationalised industries prevailing – by mine workers. Car workers likewise demonstrated their collective power in Birmingham and in Oxford, their employers also nationalised by the postwar Labour government.

The postwar compromise, where millions of workers were employed by the state, was accepted by all governments: there would be no mass unemployment as there had been before the war.

Governments spend 70 per cent of their time and money on the collateral damage thrown up by poverty: the poverty of underinvestment

The end for mass employment on this scale came with the Thatcher government removing government subsidies for what were called “lame duck” industries. Subsidies that had existed since the First World War in most basic industries, except for the newer motor industry, had kept people in work.

Underinvested in, often full of old machinery, they were unable to make a profit. I remember working in a truck-making, government-owned factory in 1968 on a machine made in 1914.

Conservatism removed work from vast sections of the industrial North, Wales and the Midlands. And many of these areas of former prosperity have never recovered. Now Conservatism is struggling with the results of the underinvestment in new industries, new education and new skill-creating training. People left behind by the lack of skilling-up in the postwar generations, whose children have trodden roughly the same path.

That is the backdrop to much of our crisis today. Why governments spend 70 per cent of their time and money on the collateral damage thrown up by poverty: the poverty of underinvestment. The poverty of putting much of the growth of the modern economy in cheap jobs in the service industries.

There was not one person brazen enough in government to pull out a glass ball and say “Look at where we are going! High streets full of cheap clothing shops, dozens and dozens of cafes! No one making top dollar, except for the owners. Banks making 80 per cent of their loans to the purchasers of housing and property. Only 20 per cent going into new business. We’d better watch out. If we were to get a pandemic whilst we’re leaving Europe because so many people are pissed off with just about managing, we’ll be screwed!” 

You reap what you sow. Great Britain, now nicely morphed into the UK, has a bundle of reconstructive tasks before it. Opportunity for reconstruction looms. Build back better.

But let’s start with a mass prevention of homelessness! Our Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) believes that’s the first step. Keep people working by mass job creation; and keep people in their homes.

It’s a beginning to recalibrating the UK into a place where work is not a dead end, where we can avoid the dead end of mass homelessness.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.