How can we forge a fairer and more equal society to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century?

Why do fairness and equality matter when it comes to tackling climate change and the global financial crisis?

This short paper aims to provoke fresh thinking and debate about the policies we shall need for the future. It opens up a new programme of work at NEF (the new economics foundation) that explores the connections between society, economy and the environment, and draws out their implications for social policy.

Through 60 years of peace and plenty, Britain’s welfare system has proved unequal to the task of narrowing inequalities or building a cohesive society. Income and health inequalities are wider than ever; yet unjust and divided societies are ill-equipped to take concerted action. A high degree of social solidarity is needed to tackle the profound economic and environmental crises that confront us all today.

Our central premise is that policy and practice must aim for sustainable social justice. To achieve this, the welfare system must be transformed. The role of Government will remain central, but we need a new social settlement that depends less on the market economy and instead values and nurtures two other economies – the resources of people and the planet. We consider what must be done to ensure that all three economies – people, planet and markets – work together for social justice.

We suggest a principled framework, review the evolution of Britain’s welfare system, and set out six steps, with practical examples, to get things moving in the right direction. We argue for a new social settlement that will:

  1. Promote well-being for all, putting equality at the heart of social policy
  2. Give priority to preventing harm so as to concentrate scare resources on meeting unavoidable needs
  3. Make the most of the core economy – human resources that are abundant and yet currently undervalued
  4. Seek to make carbon work for social justice, so that measures to reduce carbon emissions help to narrow inequalities
  5. Insist that public services are sustainable
  6. Measures success by valuing what matters in social, environmental and economic term, for the medium and long term.

The depth and urgency of today’s environmental and economic crises provide an opportunity for radical change. We must seize the opportunity because our very survival depends on it.