The COVID-19 pandemic provides a once in a generation opportunity to revolutionise the provision of creative, sporting, and recreational activities throughout the country. The policy I propose will deliver a huge demand shock for the arts, entertainment and recreation sector which will strengthen and grow supply chains until they provide a diverse offer of high-quality clubs and societies. It will also harness the huge untapped well of talent that has abruptly found itself working back in local communities and who expect to continue to do so in some capacity in the future. It will forge new and stronger community bonds across socio-economic, cultural, and generational divides. It will provide children with the opportunity to discover and nurture talents, develop diverse friendships and connections, and build self-esteem, particularly important for those not lucky enough to find academic study easy. The goal is a society where children grow up with many strings to their bow, who identify and pursue their interests, and who experience a complex network friends and mentors within vibrant communities.
I propose introducing a government funded voucher scheme that will ensure demand for creative, sporting, and recreational activities is driven by children and their parents. Every child will receive £200 a year in the form of vouchers that can be spent with any registered provider. To be eligible providers will need to prove that their class provides value to the child in some way by helping them learn a skill, develop an interest, get exercise, or simply have fun and build friendships. The cost of each class is set by the provider but should have a limit to encourage regular activities rather than one-off special occasions. The vouchers will be administered on a government website on which children, with permission from parents, will sign up for classes. To help ensure this programme crowds-in rather than crowds-out consumer spending parents will also be able to spend their own money on additional classes for their children. If the vouchers are offered to children aged 4 to 18 then the cost to the taxpayer would be approximately £2.2 billion, excluding development, administration, and evaluation costs. Of course, any vouchers that aren’t used won’t cost the government any money.
The purpose of this market driven approach is to allow price signals to drive a supply of activities that children and their parents value and enjoy. The significant demand shock provided by the government will quickly strengthen, widen, and diversify existing supply chains and bring new innovative products to the market from suppliers such as theatres, football clubs, local newspapers, and galleries. These industries have been damaged significantly during the pandemic and this investment will help them recover.
The scheme also aims to harness the millions of talented adults who now work in the heart of their local communities. These home-workers may decide to supplement their income by providing evening classes, going part-time or even beginning a new and rewarding career. This huge resource of potential providers will help ensure supply chains develop, diversity and consolidate, creating a product that increasingly attracts self-perpetuating consumer spending. This raises the opportunity in the future, if necessary, for the vouchers to become means tested and for the government to reduce its spending commitment.
The economic case for this policy is strong. It will provide a post-COVID stimulus package that, through a market driven approach, ensures waste is avoided. The investment would be evenly spread around the country reaching every city, town and village. Any adult or local business that can provide a valuable and fun activity could immediately earn an income and potentially grow a profitable business. Much of this money will be put directly into the hands of those who have recently seen their incomes drop. This will help ensure a high multiplier effect that catalyses the wider economy.
Secondary supply chain effects will also target industries that have suffered during the pandemic. Enterprising businesses and organisations such as shops, cafes, gyms, libraries, or schools, could benefit by renting out their space to providers. Alternatively, commercial property owners with empty shops on their hands may seek to capture these revenue streams directly. This could lead to a re-functioning of high streets into cultural centres that provide creative and recreational activities and a place for communities to meet.
This scheme will tackle many of the challenges that children in the 21st century face, such as bullying, disruption in the classroom and mental health issues. Many children that struggle academically develop a lack of self-esteem due to the absence of other activities through which they can experience success. These students will often compete for attention by being disruptive or being the class clown. Others will mitigate their lack of self-worth by attempting to make others feel the same way. The solution to these problems should be preventative and should start with a society that creates a wealth of opportunities through which children can feel success. Through fun and worthwhile clubs and societies children learn to identify and pursue interests, experience a sense of achievement, and occasionally plant the seeds for a future career. This policy will also build diverse and complex social networks which strengthen their resilience to bullying and forge strong community bonds.
Finally, this policy aims to begin a process of national rejuvenation, building stronger and more complex community bonds and a societal resilience that prepares us for future national emergencies. Intergenerational connections will become the norm with children finding role models beyond the authority figures of parents and teachers, and distant Youtube stars. Parents who often feel isolated in modern urban suburbs will benefit from the development of a deeper support network of adults who also have their children’s best interests at heart.
It is important to add that child safety must be central to the design of this scheme. To this end a rigorous system of checks and monitoring must be implemented. However, the stronger community bonds that this scheme aims to engender would also help ensure vulnerable children are protected.