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What could a Wellbeing Budget look like for Ireland?
COVID-19 will have many implications for Budget 2021. Not least should be the recognition of the need for a functioning society for all underpinned and supported by a vibrant and sustainable economy. Last year, New Zealand’s Government launched its first “wellbeing budget”, basing its allocations on wellbeing priorities for its citizens. Speaking at the launch, the Finance Minister stated: “Success is making New Zealand a great place to make a living and a great place to make a life”. Could such an approach work for Ireland? We believe it could, and it seems that the parties discussing the formation of a new Government agree. Here, we discuss some practical proposals that can be introduced in Budget 2021 that will deliver such a Wellbeing Budget.
Making your home more energy efficient can not only help the environment but result in energy cost savings at a household level. Yet 230,650 homes have a BER (energy efficiency) rating of F or G – the least energy efficient. These homes are more likely to be cold or damp and, consequently, have much greater heating costs. These are more likely to be poorer households or households headed by older people. They are also more likely to use coal, peat and other fossil fuels in their heating. The recent confusion regarding the status of the SEAI Deep Retrofit Scheme Pilot is concerning. However, even with this in place, the households most likely to need it were least able to avail of it, finding the upfront costs prohibitive.
As part of a more sustainable Budget 2021, investment in a retrofitting programme could be modelled on the one used in the Netherlands and part of the UK, whereby subsidised costs are spread out and paid through energy bills, making it easier for low income households to participate.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organisation estimate the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution in Ireland to be 1,510. Our nitrogen oxide emissions are well above the 2010 EU ceilings and are expected to increase as Ireland continues its reliance on private car use. The number of deaths due to respiratory and related illnesses are rising. Again, those living in or at risk of poverty are more likely to suffer the effects of air pollution, living in pollutant-dense cities or commuting long distances. As the majority of respiratory illnesses are treated at primary care level, it is important that community healthcare is prioritised in Budget 2021.
The current pandemic has also seen an intensifying of policy focus on acute hospitals, to the detriment of people in nursing homes and residential settings. This focus needs to shift to primary care needs, which both reduces the burden on acute services and provides a more comprehensive support at community level. A Wellbeing Budget for 2021 therefore needs to include investment to properly implement and develop Sláintecare.
Increased use of online learning resources risks increasing the educational divide and exacerbating educational disadvantage. Access to education, at all stages of the lifecycle, can have a transformative effect, particularly in addressing inequalities. In terms of reactivating employment, particularly in those areas most at risk and sectors outside of the major urban centres, employers across all sectors should be incentivised to produce continuous development programmes to ensure their staff maintain the skills they have and are adaptable to changes in their employment environment. Investment in wellbeing in education in Budget 2021 would take the form of an investment package in areas including adult literacy, skills development, digital education and community education.
COVID-19 has likely changed the working landscape for years to come. Many workers, some previously commuting for an hour or more, are working from home. While a reduction in the use of private transport for commuting may have an impact on our air quality and emissions, the digital divide continues to present a serious challenge. The roll out of the National Broadband Plan needs to be prioritised, with front-loaded infrastructure investment, to facilitate more people working from home and the development of community workspaces over time. A willingness from employers to re-evaluate the provision of more flexible work arrangements for their staff would benefit both the environment and staff wellbeing and lead to greater staff retention.
Of course, there are industries in which it is not possible to work remotely. Greater wellbeing for these employees means tackling work precarity and low pay. And for commuters, increased use of sustainable public transport would contribute to wellbeing for all. This requires Government to prioritise the development of a green public transport fleet to areas across Ireland.
In Budget 2021, Government must prioritise investment in a regional development package including the roll-out of sustainable public transport and a national broadband network.
Addressing inequalities is key to tackling the sustainability issue. Those experiencing poverty and deprivation are most likely to be impacted by environmental changes and least likely to be able to mitigate against their impact. Social Justice Ireland believes that Government should move towards the introduction of the Living Wage (currently standing at €12.30) in place of the National Minimum Wage to support those in low-paid and precarious employment to maintain a reasonable standard of living. For those in receipt of social welfare payments, Government must return to its commitment to benchmark basic welfare rates to average weekly earnings, as a move towards a Minimum Essential Standard of Living. Social Justice Ireland calls on a new Government to address the impacts of the deep inequalities experienced by those who cannot make ends meet.
Climate Action and Sustainability
Last year’s Climate Action Summit focused on the “unprecedented effort” required from all sectors of society to address climate change. Creating a sustainable Wellbeing Budget requires a multi-faceted, whole of Government approach. In our National Social Monitor – Sustainability Edition, published in September 2019, Social Justice Ireland provide analysis and policy recommendations across ten key policy areas. These include increasing the rate of carbon tax in conjunction with the introduction of a Just Transition package; developing an Irish circular economy package for sustainable production; increasing investment in electric vehicle infrastructure; and removing the subsidies, currently costing €4 billion per year, for potentially environmentally damaging activities.
The Irish Government once aspired to make Ireland the best small country in the world to grow up in; it’s time for a new Government to make Ireland the best little country in the world to make a life.