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Making common sense common practice

11 May 2012


By Julia Slay, Senior Researcher and Social Policy Programme Co-ordinator, New Economics Foundation (nef)

Julia Slay, New Economics Foundation

Julia Slay, New Economics Foundation

This week, nef held a conference that marked the start of an exciting new programme of work we’re running on The Wisdom of Prevention. The event, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, brought together an impressive range of speakers from a range of sectors: Lord Adair Turner, Margaret Hodge MP, Jonathon Porritt, David Robinson, and Dharmendra Kanani from the Big Lottery Fund.

So what is Prevention? To many it may be a new term, although it is used fairly widely in social policy circles. It’s about understanding why things go wrong, and tackling the underlying causes of harm. To quote from nef’s report on the subject:

  • For society: tackling the underlying causes of poverty, unemployment, ill-health, illiteracy and homelessness, reducing crime and social conflict, insecurity and distrust, and cutting the need for hospitals, prisons and income support
  • For the environment: cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the risks of climate change, safeguarding natural resources and stopping pollution of air, land and water
  • For the economy: regulating financial institutions to prevent speculation, investing in good jobs and renewable energy, taxing polluters and discouraging carbon-intensive production.

This may sound like common sense – and indeed, that was a point made by Community Link’s David Robinson, who reminded us that what makes common sense does not always become common practice. In fact, there are precious few examples of this important strategic approach being applied in any systematic way.

Even in the health sector, where the idea is perhaps most developed, Margaret Hodge outlined that only 4 per cent of the total NHS spend is devoted to preventative measures, and yet many health conditions are preventable.

Photo credit: estherase via Flickr

Photo credit: estherase via Flickr

nef’s take on prevention expands the concept beyond the social sphere, and also looks at how the underlying causes of harm in the environment and economy are often highly interlinked and can be ‘’mutually reinforcing’’.

Several examples in the paper showed what applying a preventative approach might look like in practice. One example was taken in insulating homes against the cold, which if done at a national scale, would boost employment and skills.

Over time it would reduce the amount spent on the winter fuel allowances.[i] It would also reduce the amount of carbon used in heating homes, and reduce heating bills – benefits across the environmental, social and economic spheres.

Delegates put forward some searching questions during the Panel Q&A. Some of the ones which have stayed in my mind asked;

  • Have we have seen a failure of politics in the lack of leadership on this agenda?
  • What trade-offs we might have to be prepared to make when considering the reality of what preventing significant and global challenges, such as climate change?
  • Does the language of ‘prevention’ need to change to a more positive axis if we are to persuade people of its powerful and radical potential?
  • How far can regulation and legislation get us?

If you didn’t make the conference, you can catch up on it with the full audio on our website, download the full report here, or wait until the short film of the event is produced, which will be up on the nef website by the end of May.

We’ll be continuing this work on prevention with an expert seminar in the autumn, and are looking at opportunities to develop a practical programme of work. Please get in touch with if you are interested in being part of this.

[i] DWP (2011), ‘Benefit Expenditure by Country, Region and Local Authority’,

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    11 May 2012 12:29 pm

    Is there any suggestion that stopping threatening the world might lead to fewer wars perhaps?


  1. Early action and prevention – the urgency of now « The Big Lottery Fund Blog
  2. Once a vision, now a necessity « The Big Lottery Fund Blog

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