Lesley Riddoch: Building means jobs for just the boys

Workmen at the Quartermile development in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Workmen at the Quartermile development in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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The Chancellor’s £394m present is likely to go to projects that won’t help many women and children, writes Lesley Riddoch

SO 2013 will be the Year of the Hard Hat, thanks to a £394 million boost for Scots capital spending announced in the chancellor’s autumn statement.

Last year infrastructure secretary Alex Neil was mocked for his wish-list of “shovel-ready projects” – this Christmas, George “Bad Santa” Osborne has surprisingly delivered. Now the only question is what to fund?

Civil servants will back construction projects offering the biggest multiplier benefit for the Scottish economy. Politicians will calculate which “low-hanging fruit” deliver best value in marginal constituencies. But one thing’s fairly certain. The female majority of the working age population will fail to benefit directly with new jobs or a better future for their children because infrastructure spending in Scotland tends to create jobs for the boys.

Scottish Enterprise figures show that just 22 per cent of 27,000 modern apprenticeships in 2008 were female (with 0.9 per cent of female MAs in construction and 97.8 per cent in childcare). This polarised tradition means the number of Scottish women able to gain employment in construction, building or engineering projects is practically zilch.

Women have been hit hardest by job cuts and service reductions. And yet research shows more of a woman’s wage is spent immediately (especially on children) – precisely what we need to kick-start demand in the economy. A gender bias in job creation also hampers personal development, social fairness and economic efficiency.

It’s all been said before. But last month finance secretary John Swinney published a list of preferred “shovel-ready” projects including £34m worth of trunk road schemes, a £5.7m revamp of ferry ports, £308m for NHS buildings and £65m on college upgrades.

I understand these building projects are important. I know the SNP think powerful sectors in Scottish business must be appeased – until 2014 at least. I appreciate it may be unusual to spend money earmarked for asphalt, bricks and mortar on human capital instead – even “ultra vires” under the mechanisms of Barnett Formula spending. But all these hefty, worldly considerations aside – I still want better.

2013 could be remembered as the revolutionary Year of the Soft Hat – with £394m invested in human capital, not road junctions. Better performing European neighbours often have shabby court rooms, un-painted doctors’ surgeries and ice-splintered roads – but they never neglect basic investment in people the way we do.

After a recent talk on the Nordic welfare state, a Danish professor was truly shocked when a Scottish audience member revealed her childcare costs – £1,800 a month for two children full-time. In Denmark it would be £320 for the first child and less for the second. She was also the only “full-time” mother using that Edinburgh nursery – no-one else was able to take such a risk on the “luxury” of a full-time job.

This unchanging, grimly predictable pattern of public spending means educated, talented women will continue to be frozen out of the workforce, single mums will still live in poverty and their children will go on bearing the brunt – no matter how well parents shield the society of tomorrow from the stress of today.

Government should really come clean. Are singleton children better off socialising with other kids during their formative years? Are men more than just bread-winning automatons? Is society better employing women before they’ve had a disorienting and disempowering decade away from work? If the answer is yes – then it’s time to act. Otherwise over-educated girls are destined to underachieve or leave Scotland to find equality elsewhere. And “new” men will follow.

Scotland urgently needs a wider economic strategy to put lost value back into the domestic sphere and child development (especially nought to three). We won’t get that until economists recognise the household as a source of value and creator of wealth and we won’t get that as long as male economists dominate the political sphere, making headlines regardless of their track record in improving lives.

If the domestic sphere is recognised as a source of value, the Scottish Government could agree that “leakages” must be properly plugged – otherwise social breakdown in the form of self-harm, alcohol abuse, violence, under-performance and low productivity will continue to drag us down. In a world dominated by the narrow values of business “giants” like bickering Twitter tycoons Donald Trump and Alan Sugar – that may sound like cod economics.

But since women have long worked outside the home in equal numbers to men, the household has lost labour and energy. The answer is universal, state-subsidised childcare as the most important part of Scotland’s aspiration to provide free high-quality education for all.

And yet, when capital investment is under discussion, childcare is never mentioned. That should matter to more than human rights campaigners, feminists and child-care activists. But evidently it doesn’t.

The proposal to have a women’s parliament next year in the Holyrood chamber has failed. The recent flurry about equal gender representation on TV and in public debate has also died down to allow male-only analysis, commentary and business as usual. Of course, the presence of more female “suits” on panels doesn’t automatically widen the life experience in Scotland’s stiflingly mono-cultural public debate. But if women, with a 51 per cent population share, can’t punch near their weight – what other “minority” can?

The inescapable conclusion is that women and children do not represent the future of this country unless they share the outlook and interests of the 50-something men who currently run Scotland.

So this is make or break time for the Scottish Government – a perfect opportunity to demonstrate new priorities by spending the Osborne windfall on children, not shovels.

After all, Nicola Sturgeon is in charge of the “hard hat” portfolio after a decade in “soft hat” health. Female, independence-wary voters suspect constitutional change will just swap one uncaring, “dog-eat-dog” society for another – a big childcare project might be “persuasive”. And all Scottish political parties – including Ruth Davidson’s Tories – currently agree there’s no better return on capital than early-years investment.

If transformational investment in human capital doesn’t happen in 2013, a Swedish precedent may be worth considering. A group of prominent women threatened to establish a Women’s List in parliamentary elections during the 1990s unless mainstream parties changed tack. They did.

Maybe it’s time to consider a similar strategy here – or maybe the Scottish government can yet reload Santa’s sleigh.