Bartek Staniszewski is a researcher at Bright Blue.
The most spurned element of Plato’s Republic is not its authoritarianism, famously criticised by Popper, nor is it the proposal that philosophers should rule. Although people still argue about both of those, nobody argues about the Republic’s proposal regarding that most fundamental fibre of the social fabric – the family.
Unlike any one of its other facets, the Republic’s proposal to replace the family with a state-controlled vision of living and upbringing has been rejected almost wholesale, both now and historically. And with good reason. The family has been a core, indispensable feature of virtually every society throughout history.
I am not as worried, therefore, as some conservative commentators, that the family’s existence is at threat. What is at threat, rather, is a politics that does not accommodate for it. Because, unlike the family, politics is dispensable. As such, any political entity aspiring to rulership needs to make family its ally, and not opponent.
But family is worth allying for more than merely pragmatic reasons. Conservatives from Burke through Scruton maintain that we have a special obligation to our families, and that we ought to take special efforts to protect and help them. It is at the centre of the conservative conception of the good life.
And conservatives also of the fiscal variety have a lot to commend the family for. Children who are provided firm foundations by strong, well-structured families become much less of a burden on the state, requiring less support to survive, and, indeed, to thrive; that support instead provided much more organically by their family.
As much as 36 per cent of the government’s tax revenue is being spent on tackling the adversities that a good upbringing alleviates. People who grow up in supportive families are more productive, less likely to require social services, government welfare and the NHS and are less likely to attend prison; 85 per cent of those in contact with the criminal justice system have experience of childhood trauma. Once faced with adversities, those who grew up in better families are also more resilient to them.
In that, even with the ideological conflict ongoing in the Conservative Party remaining unresolved, whichever side comes out on top, family and children ought to be a prime priority. But families will not be helped by virtue signalling and fi3ghting culture wars – the problems they face are much more tangible than this.
Family is often, not accidentally, used synonymously with household; many households are families, and most families aspire to be households. But household formation has been decimated by the ongoing housing crisis in the UK. Forty per cent of women at the average age to have a first baby are now forced to rent, a figure which was less than 15 per cent in 1996. It was only recently that letting agents have been stopped from banning children from their properties.
Even those who do not rent are rarely in the position to start a family, as they lack the space to raise children. English homes are some of the smallest in Europe at 76 m2. Danish homes are almost twice as big. Room size, too, has shrunk by over 30 per cent since the 1970s. The amount of space deemed sufficient for one person by overcrowding regulation can be as little as around 55 square feet – less than a Fiat 500 takes up on the road – and does not account in any way for living rooms or gardens, meaning there is nowhere for children to play. And almost a million households live in conditions even more cramped than this, classed as statutorily overcrowded.
Many neighbourhoods, too, lack safe, homely spaces for children to socialise. Since the 1970s, we have observed that both the leisure time and neighbourhood trust have declined. The two things people in left-behind areas feel is most lacking there, a Survation poll found, were places to meet and community resources.
Consequently, it should not be a surprise that the fertility rate in the UK has fallen by a quarter in the last ten years, as bemoaned by Miriam Cates. People cannot afford a home to start a family, despite the fact that record proportions of income are spent on rent or mortgage, squeezing out what is left for childcare, which is already the fifth most expensive amongst all OECD countries. And although the Government has committed to investing in childcare from the demand side, childcare supply and flexibility remain poor, with the number of registered providers having fallen by 11 per cent since 2018. The number of childminders, who are the most flexible childcare providers, and on whom the most disadvantaged families often rely on, had fallen by 23 per cent in the same period.
Unless something is done now, the problems faced by families will end up eating up more and more of the government’s financial capital, as the good life will become unaffordable, and children will lack the firm foundations that would enable them to manage for themselves without the overbearing support of the state. Conservatives need to act.
First, first-time-buyers must be prioritised. Renting is not a recipe for a stable upbringing, and acts as a significant barrier for family formation. Getting on that first step of the housing ladder is often enough to start having children and can be a jumping-off point from which one can move into a bigger property should one have more children.
In the meantime, however, it is crucial that families who rent are protected, and do not have to face unacceptable conditions or stare down the prospect of eviction at a short term’s notice. The new Renters Bill can serve as the catalyst for that, providing appropriate protections and ending no-fault evictions.
Bigger properties, too, must go to those who need them. Incentives ought to be created for older people to move into homes that are smaller but specifically designed for them. There, they could experience better living standards and smaller bills, all while freeing up living space for larger families to move in. The effect of this could be equivalent to building 50,000 new homes every year.
Furthermore, the planning framework ought to incentivise that neighbourhoods are created with all the amenities that make for a good family life: sociability, belonging and safety. Public Health England notes community life, green spaces and a sense of belonging and neighbourliness all as key protective factors against childhood vulnerability.
Finally, the supply of flexible childcare must improve, and we must protect the crucial work of stay-at-home parents through adequately paid paternity and maternity leave. Significant compensation is only offered here in the first six weeks of maternity leave, compared to 58.6 weeks in Bulgaria. After six weeks, women are only entitled to the further 46 weeks of paternity leave at a rate of £150 per week. Consequently, many low-income women are forced to deprioritise their children and return to work early. And it is not like the dad can take over. Fathers, shamefully, are only entitled to up to two weeks of paternity leave.
Those of a non-conservative persuasion might disagree that the family life is the way to live. But even they should agree that this is a way that people should be free to live. Otherwise, we face an existential abyss – and a bigger tax bill.