Leading Article: Time to go to work

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The Independent Online
IN HIS inaugural address in 1933, at the height of the US Depression, President Franklin D Roosevelt said: 'Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment . . . Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.' By directly employing people, the government could execute 'greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganise the use of our natural resources'. Five months later, he signed the National Recovery Act: 'A national emergency productive of widespread unemployment and disorganisation of industry, which burdens interstate and foreign commerce, affects the public welfare, and undermines the standard of living of the American people, is hereby declared to exist.'

With unemployment above 2.7 million, and only the feeblest of recoveries in sight, many people find it hard to grasp why this government still sees its 'greatest primary task' as the protection of sterling and the pursuit of the improbable goal of zero inflation. It takes a very sophisticated economist - and, probably, one who, as Paul Ormerod of the Henley Centre said last week, has failed to make any accurate predictions for at least 10 years - to explain why some of the unemployed should not be paid to execute 'greatly needed projects' rather than being paid welfare benefits to remain idle.

Here are six such projects:

An emergency programme for to house the homeless. Shelter estimates that 100,000 additional homes are needed over each of the next five years. Many could be derelict properties, repaired and refurbished. Much of the spending would be recouped in rent. It costs pounds 15,000 to keep the average homeless family in bed-and-breakfast for a year.

A national programme to repair and upgrade our 30,000 primary and secondary schools. Her Majesty's Inspectors have said huge backlogs of repairs and maintenance are adversely affecting the education of thousands of children. Further, many schools lack the equipment and accommodation - particularly in science and technology - to meet the demands of the national curriculum.

The Midland Metro. Birmingham is the biggest city in western Europe, and the West Midlands the biggest conurbation, without a light rail system. (Lyons, a city of comparable size, opens an extension to its fourth underground line tomorrow.) The local passenger transport authority was ready to start building the first 13 miles of a 60-mile network next year and the Government had given grants and credit approvals for preliminary work; in June, fresh from the hustings, ministers announced that no funding would be available for at least three years. Ten million pounds worth of EC funding (a tenth of the cost) will be lost.

Modernisation of British Rail's west-coast line from London to Glasgow. New trains, which are already designed, and new track and signalling would cut London-to-Manchester times from two hours 45 minutes to two hours and London-to-Glasgow times from five hours to four hours 15 minutes.

A national 'green network' of cycleways and walkways. This would enable people to undertake more journeys without cars. Children would once more walk or cycle to school. Traffic congestion - estimated by the CBI to cost industry more than pounds 15bn a year - would be cut; damage and ill-health caused by car pollution would be reduced.

Repairing the nation's sewers. Britain has an estimated 70,000 miles of sewers needing repair; about 15,000 miles are more than a century old. Each year, hundreds of sewers collapse or get blocked, interrupting water supplies and disrupting traffic.

All these projects could start almost immediately. Others, such as the Channel tunnel rail link, would take some years to start - but a definite announcement that they will go ahead would restore confidence. Ministers talk gravely of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, but they should reflect, first, that the Japanese Cabinet, with much lower unemployment, has just approved pounds 12bn spending on public works and, second, that more dole payments and lower tax revenues can only cause borrowing to rise, in step with national misery. In Roosevelt's words, 'this nation asks for action, and action now'.