How to use our 'new normal' to reshape a better Britain for future generations - Justine Greening

Lockdown has been a long haul. Our ancestors used to look up to the sky at the weather to try to work out the future, now we look to the scientists for any signs that they may be finally working out how we can beat this virus or keep it at bay to live with.

Justine Greening says now is the time to shape a better country for future generations.

We’re so ‘deep’ into lockdown it’s hard to look too far ahead, and the economic outlook also looks bleak. Chancellor Rishi Sunak said this week that the country is in the middle of what is likely to be a significant recession.

But in reality, Britain’s future is there to be shaped if we’re prepared to have confidence and be bold, inside Government and out.

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Getting to grips with coronavirus has required a different approach for Britain – from our politics, from our society and from our businesses.

Drax power station in Selby. Draxinvested 200,000 to provide laptops to students to help them with their studies during the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

The ‘national effort’ has meant that more than ever we’ve also looked to ourselves as communities and we’ve looked to our businesses to help us get through the crisis.

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Companies with their hearts in Yorkshire like Drax and Persimmon made the right calls when the chips were down.

Selby-based Drax invested £200,000 to provide laptops to students to help them with their studies during the Covid-19 crisis and cancelled gas and electricity bills for 170 small care homes.

York-based Persimmon donated PPE originally planned for use on building sites to doctors and nurses on the frontline battling Covid-19 and offered dedicated funding grants

to groups supporting the over-70s.

It reinforces my belief that the eventual ‘new normal’ increasingly being talked about must be better than what went before. Above all, this is a moment to reshape Britain. Our choice for what comes next is simple.

Muddle through what comes after the lockdown. Or grasp the nettle now and start shaping our future to build a country with equality of opportunity. Boris Johnson’s Government was right to put ‘levelling up Britain’ centre stage. The new normal has to mean realising this vision.

It should be an agenda that is championed by Whitehall, but it must also be championed by business too. For years Britain’s economy has run like a car with only one engine piston pumping – ineffectively and inefficiently.

It’s why our national productivity is too low and inequality is too high. It’s time to get all the pistons firing by having all the parts of our country succeeding.

As a former accountant, I understand how many businesses face impossible choices over the coming months as they work to survive this crisis and then adapt to succeed in the changed Britain that lies beyond.

But those decisions don’t only effect businesses themselves, they will more broadly shape our lives just as much as the policy calls made in Whitehall. No-one growing up in Yorkshire, as I did in the 1980s, with the steel and coal industry job losses can forget how they affected local communities.

Already through this crisis we have seen some companies get their response to dealing with coronavirus badly wrong. When employees, customers and communities needed their support and help, they weren’t there.

But for many other businesses, they’ve been a clear part of the solution. Looking ahead, the next challenge for business is to be part of the national effort to help Britain bounce back stronger.

Now companies have to build a response to what comes next, which means how they can help deliver a levelled-up Britain. For some it can mean planning how to support our schools, offering work experience – even if done remotely, and protecting apprenticeships and graduate roles, if at all possible.

For others it will mean a plan to keep playing a broader role in a community supporting local charities and community groups. Stronger businesses need strong communities.

Yes, this a difficult time for business and it’s easier to be a good company that lifts a wider community when times are good. But it’s when times are hard that it counts the most. Through the Social Mobility Pledge campaign, I’ll be working with businesses to do just that and put those Opportunity Action Plans in place.

I’m already working with 10 per cent of the FTSE 100 companies to work out practically what this means for them and what they can do. I hope we’ll find just as much energy and creativity as we did in their response to help the national effort on coronavirus.

I also hope we can create a race to the top of businesses playing a broader role for good in our country. Coronavirus means that change will happen to Britain. Times will be tough, but we can also shape a better country for future generations.

Change can be driven from outside Government as well as Ministers in Whitehall. Businesses can use this moment to play their role in ensuring that the new Britain is one where opportunity is spread as evenly as talent.

The Rotherham-born Justine Greening is a former Conservative MP and served as Education Secretary between 2016 and 2018. She is co-founder of the Social Mobility Pledge campaign.

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