What are the six biggest social issues the UK needs to tackle?

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Come together: through inclusive capitalism we can tackle the UK's biggest social issues

There are many social issues facing the UK right now. Discover how by working together as individuals, communities and businesses we can come together to make society stronger

There can be no denying that 2019 was a decisive year for the UK. We had a decisive general election, and Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and Extinction Rebellion made us think about climate change, but the demand for new housing grew ever more pressing and we still have not addressed our ageing population or infrastructure shortage.

As the Government sets out to create a post-Brexit economy that works for all regions and where the power of businesses and markets can be deployed to tackle big issues such as post-financial-crisis underinvestment, the housing and healthcare shortages and regeneration of towns and communities outside London, business leaders are also looking at the strategies that can achieve this.

One leader considering potential solutions is Legal & General chief executive Nigel Wilson. “The biggest issue in Britain today is still how we build greater economic growth to improve everyone’s lives in a way that is sustainable for communities and the environment,” he says. “We need to invest to create real jobs and better infrastructure to transform our cities and towns. This has to be achieved in a responsible and inclusive way.”

We need to invest to create real jobs and better infrastructure to transform our cities and towns. This has to be achieved in a responsible and inclusive way

By drawing on two of the UK’s strengths – its entrepreneurial spirit and innovative, inclusive form of capitalism – we can source ways to make society stronger. In the coming months, we will speak to thought leaders, experts and academics about the scale of these challenges and innovative ways to tackle them.

The UK is in an enviable position to drive change. It is a world leader in education. In last year’s ranking of the top five universities in the world, two – Oxford and Cambridge – are in the UK[1]. We also have the highest employment rates in the Western world. More than three-quarters of the population are gainfully employed, according to official figures[2], but we have not managed to transition enough of these jobs into higher productivity and hence higher pay. 

This dedication to improving society via economic growth is a strategy that places businesses and individuals at its heart. “Growing numbers of British companies are responding to the challenge from customers, and the wider public and shareholders, to demonstrate that business is doing its bit to help tackle some of the big issues society faces, whether it is inequality or climate change,” says Mr Wilson. “And business needs to show that this is a genuine, meaningful response to the problems we face – not a handful of token social initiatives tacked on to their annual report.”

In this forthcoming series of six features, we will hear from experts and opinion-formers about the strategies that could be employed to tackle issues such as our ageing demographics, climate change, capitalising on our world-leading reputation for tech development and allowing the UK’s innate spirit of business innovation to flourish.

We have identified six key areas for our experts and opinion-formers to explore:

1. Rethinking retirement

The UK is home to an ageing population. According to the latest statistics from Age UK, there are now nearly 12 million people aged over 65 in Britain[3]. (And this is a global issue – the World Bank has stated that if the global over-65s were a country, only China and the US would be bigger[4].)

This presents a major challenge for the UK Government and society as a whole. The state pension bill is set to rise rapidly, while growing numbers of elderly people will have an impact on the NHS and social care provision. And a decline in the working population means a drop in tax revenue to fund all this.

The increasing rarity of generous defined-benefit pensions and their replacement by rapidly growing defined-contribution pensions, including the first eight years of workplace auto-enrolment, mean individual engagement with saving for retirement is set to grow fast.


2. Investing for global good

Global political tumult and societal upheaval have had a strange and worrying effect on the financial markets. There has never been so much money available in the world but, with interest rates at historic lows and likely to stay that way, investors are ploughing their capital into bonds and securities with sub-zero yields – they are guaranteed to make a loss on their money.

It is estimated that almost a third of all investment-grade securities now have negative yields[5], and more than $10trn of global money is earning negative returns. In a low-interest-rate world, what can tomorrow’s investors do to safeguard their capital – and generate a fair return? The solution might be diversification of investment into emerging markets – but higher rewards may also mean higher risk. 

What is certain is that we need to channel the surplus of money more effectively towards sustainable asset classes that deliver both economic and social returns, and to correct decades of underinvestment our political, business and banking leaders need to collaboratively join the dots.


3. Greener futures

The UK Government is one year into a 25-year plan to protect and improve the environmenty[6]. The initiative began with the 5p plastic bag charge. Next up: reducing carbon emissions, protecting the UK countryside, building resilience against the extreme weather associated with climate change, and leading international action to protect endangered species.

The UK is also leading the world in promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, an exercise that will cost at least £1trn. Critics have claimed that some of the Government’s pledges do not go far enough. Environmental campaign organisation Greenpeace has stated that the recent bill to encourage more recycling and force manufacturers to be responsible for plastic waste fails to address the crisis[7].

4. Future-proofing society

Decades of underinvestment have taken their toll on the UK. Major infrastructure projects, from broadband to sewers, were put on hold, leading to massive issues nationwide. The North of England has been hit especially hard. The UK desperately needs more investment: in towns and cities, housing, infrastructure and clean, green, cheap energy. With the population set to hit 75 million by 2050, serious questions are being raised about the capacity, reliability and performance of the nation’s core transport networks[8].

Government estimates suggest that almost £500bn is required to bridge the infrastructure funding gap[9]. A recent analysis by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales found that the UK continues to underinvest in infrastructure[10].

The Government may need to replace the European Investment Bank (EIB) once it leaves the EU. The EIB has been an anchor investor for many UK infrastructure projects, which invested £26.5bn between 2012 and 2016. 

But the Government could go further, tapping into the pride and vision of our great regional cities where mayors with devolved powers can inspire local regeneration projects away from the political noise of Westminster. There are already great collaborative successes to be found: Media City in Salford, the Newcastle Helix and Leeds Thorpe Park can all be looked to for inspiration for improving infrastructure and quality of life in northern English cities.

Last year, Legal & General teamed up with Oxford University on a groundbreaking project to build two state-of-the-art science parks and more than 3,000 new homes as part of a £4bn investment in Oxford.


5. Innovation through tech

No industry has been immune to the technological revolution of the past decade. Traditional financial sectors such as banking, insurance and pensions have been given a digital makeover, as well as education and health. The digital revolution has the potential to democratise the financial industry, and increase transparency and much higher levels of customer engagement to pensions – as it is doing already to banking products such as current accounts. 

According to the 2019 EY Global FinTech Adoption Index, 75pc of consumers around the world now use a money transfer and payments fintech service, 48pc use an insurance fintech provider and more than half (56pc) of small business users have a banking and payments account with a fintech brand.


6. Supercharging SMEs

There are a record 5.8 million small to medium-sized businesses in the UK. And numbers are rising fast: in 2018, there were 672,890 new company registrations, up 8.5pc on 2017, according to Companies House. 

SMEs make up 99.9pc of the UK’s business population, accounting for three-fifths of employment and half of total private sector turnover. But while Britain is good at start-ups, we are less good at scale-ups. 

Of the world’s top 20 tech companies, 11 are from the US and nine from China. There are none from the UK or continental Europe. For these businesses, and other scale-ups in areas as diverse as life sciences, robotics, artificial intelligence and renewable energy, to thrive, they require access to finance, the ability to find and hire staff, access to reliable infrastructure, such as transport networks and broadband, and the means to trade both domestically and overseas.

The Power of Us

Building greater, more sustainable economic growth can improve the lives of everyone in the UK.

This is the goal of inclusive capitalism: using money and investment as a force for good, to create real jobs and better infrastructure to transform the UK’s cities and towns and tackle the biggest issues of our times such as housing, climate change and ageing demographics.

It’s something businesses, communities and individuals can all get behind and work together to achieve – and it’s why Telegraph Spark has teamed up with Legal & General for The Power of Us, a campaign that aims to identify the challenges facing society, then use some of the UK’s brightest, most innovative thinkers to help solve them.

The Power of Us: the future is in your hands.