Children play football in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How inequality is costing the economy billions

The social consequences of inequality, such as reduced life expectancy and worse mental health, cost the equivalent of over £39bn every single year.

Since the late 1970s, the UK has become one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. As the rich have got richer, the rest of us have been left behind. Research released today by Oxfam shows that just five families now have as much wealth as the poorest 20 per cent of the population. It’s a frightening statistic, and for most people, one that offends their basic sense of decency. Can anyone really be "worth" this much? Can so many people be worth so little?

Worryingly, for some the answer appears to be "yes". For these people, an elite but small group of "wealth creators" are delivering jobs and driving economic growth. If five of these people happen to have the same wealth as a fifth of the population, well that’s just reward for their hard work and, no doubt, superior intellect. Perhaps even more concerning is the argument that inequality is not just acceptable, but desirable - driving the competitiveness vital to entrepreneurialism. But does seeing someone paid hundreds or even thousands of times more than you act as encouragement, or as a painful reminder of how little society values you?

The reality is that the consequences of the UK’s extraordinarily high levels of inequality are far-reaching and catastrophic. Of the developed OECD countries, the UK is ranked 17th out of 23 for life expectancy, 19th out of 22 on obesity, 17th out of 21 on teenage births, and 17th out of 23 for imprisonment. More equal societies, meanwhile, top the table on almost every measure.

Inequality shapes how we see others, our levels of trust in strangers, our sense of community. It erodes the bonds between individuals. But might it go even further? The IMF and others have pointed towards the damaging effects that inequality may have on economic growth. It makes perfect sense; if wages stagnate or fall for the majority of people, a consumer-led recovery becomes tricky to engineer without encouraging a huge growth in personal debt.

In addition, the impact of inequality on our health, wellbeing and crime rates may also have a financial cost. Research recently conducted by the Equality Trust has found that the impact on the UK of some of the social consequences of inequality, including reduced healthy life expectancy, worse mental health, higher levels of imprisonment and murder, could cost the equivalent of over £39bn every single year. If this was broken down to an individual level, it would show that the impact of inequality on every man, woman and child in the UK can be valued at £622.

Yet these figures may be just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the costs associated with inequality remain incalculable. For example, how does one value the higher level of community cohesion, trust, and social mobility associated with less unequal countries? Our estimate is based on a comparison between the level of inequality in the UK and the average level seen in developed countries. In other words, small changes to our level of income inequality would have a huge effect.

In recent weeks, the issue of inequality has gained significant coverage, it is now unquestionably part of the public and political narrative. But we need action to match the rhetoric. A living wage, a fairer tax system, and the creation of jobs with genuine opportunities for advancement should all be part of political party manifestos. But all parties serious about reducing costly social problems must also include an Inequality Test - an explicit goal that the net impact of their policies will be to reduce the gap between the richest and the rest. The benefits of reducing economic inequality are clear - a richer, healthier and quite possibly happier society. But we need politicians to have the courage and conviction to deliver real change.

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.