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How experts think the government should actually be levelling up the country

To coincide with the publication of the long-awaited levelling up white paper, we asked experts what’s really needed to cut regional inequality in the UK.

The government has published its long-awaited levelling up white paper, setting out its flagship plans to tackle regional inequality.

Better quality jobs – and more of them – is the UK public’s priority, according to new polling, with nearly half of people saying aid employment should be at the forefront of Westminster’s levelling up proposals.

Ministers promised to transform the work opportunities available for people in deprived parts of the country, as well as cutting the attainment gap in schools and lifting families out of hardship.

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This is how experts think the government can really level up the UK.

Revive high streets hit by Covid

Town centre businesses are still grappling with the financial knock-on effects of lockdowns. While more deprived areas actually saw fewer shops become vacant than wealthier parts of the country – likely due to facing lower rent costs, which could be covered by government support, and being less reliant on the custom of office workers – high streets in the Midlands and north of England could face a wave of closures in the months ahead, thinktank Centre for Cities warned.

Officials should focus on intervening to address the fundamental economic problems of poorer areas which lead to struggling high streets, the analysts said. That means investing in skills and increasing the money in shoppers’ pockets, “rather than on ‘cosmetic’ quick fixes such as hanging baskets and painting shop fronts”.

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“While the pandemic has been a tough time for all high streets it has levelled down our more prosperous cities and towns,” said Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities. “Despite this, the strength of their wider local economies means they are well placed to recover quickly from the past two years.

“The bigger concern is for economically weaker places – primarily in the north and Midlands – where Covid-19 has actually paused their long-term decline. To help them avoid a wave of high street closures this year the government must set out how it plans to increase peoples’ skills and pay to give them the income needed to sustain a thriving high street. 

“Many of these places are in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ so there is a political imperative for the government to act fast, as well as an economic one.”

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Invest in GPs

In more deprived parts of the country, people’s health tends to be poorer too. The way funding is allocated to GPs in different areas is unfair, the Health Foundation said, and could undermine any attempts to level up the UK if policy makers stick to it.

The number of GPs in disadvantaged areas has fallen in the past five years. People living in deprived communities face a life expectancy up to 12 years shorter than those in wealthier areas, the research showed, and are more likely to experience multiple health conditions, meaning more doctors are crucial. GPs working in poorer areas are responsible for nearly 10 per cent more patients than GPs in affluent parts of the country.

“If the government is serious about ‘levelling up’ the country then tackling underfunding and under-doctoring in GP services in poorer areas needs to be a priority,” said Rebecca Fisher, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation.

“The current funding system is inadequate and fails to allocate resources based on need. The GP workforce is under pressure everywhere, but more so in deprived areas – where health need is greatest and GP numbers lowest. Policy efforts to address this have stalled in the past decade. Unless the government takes rapid, meaningful action, rhetoric about levelling up will ring hollow.”

Ban zero-hours contracts

Like the public, employment experts say better-paying, more secure jobs with stable hours are key to lifting up deprived areas in line with wealthier regions.

Around 3.6 million people – one in nine workers – are in insecure work, according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), while one million children of key workers are living in poverty.

Attempts to level up will fail if ministers do not ban zero-hours contracts and improve workers’ access to unions in the workplace, union TUC said.

“Everyone deserves to be treated fairly at work and paid a wage they can live on. But for too many in the UK, work isn’t paying the bills,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

“After more than a decade of lost pay and with the cost-of-living crisis taking its toll, it’s time ministers got their priorities right. We can’t level up the country without levelling up work.”

The government should also “invest in good green jobs in industries of the future and give key workers the decent pay rise they deserve”, O’Grady added.

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Reverse 10 years of public spending cuts

The government has already announced plans to invest in schools with fewer resources and help teachers stay in the job. But if ministers want to improve services in deprived areas, they must first look at how public spending decisions have affected them over the past decade, economists say.

Cuts to English council and school budgets have been larger in disadvantaged areas since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

Between 2010 and 2020, spending on services by the tenth of councils serving the most deprived communities fell by 31 per cent per resident, nearly twice as much compared to in the tenth of councils in the wealthiest areas – something the IFS describes as a “deliberate policy choice by the coalition government”. Funding for English councils is still allocated using data collected in 2013.

Tackling this as part of a multi-pronged approach – which addresses jobs, education and skills –  is a key test of the government’s commitment, the economists said, and there should be “no pretense that genuine or big change can be achieved quickly”.

“Regional inequalities in incomes, wealth, health and education have persisted for decades,” said Paul Johnson, director for the IFS. “There are far more graduates in places like London and the South East where opportunities for high skilled, well paying jobs are much more plentiful than in other regions. 

“Levelling up economic outcomes between places must mean getting high paid jobs more evenly spread – much easier said than done. Meanwhile, if people born in poorer areas are to see the full benefits of that then educational attainment in these areas must simultaneously be improved, or else many of the good jobs will be filled by graduates moving in. Decisions since 2010 to cut public spending in poorer areas more than in better off ones will not have helped.

“It is really important to remember in all this that, while high paid jobs are unevenly spread, low paid jobs, and indeed poverty, are not. A higher fraction of London’s population is in poverty than that in any other region. We need to worry about places, but we need to worry about people too.”

After the Department for Education released plans for “education investment areas”, experts are already concerned that the impact of recent public spending decisions has been ignored in the white paper.

“Many of the areas now targeted for support have been among the hardest hit by education cuts over the last decade – on the government’s own watch, and entirely of its own making,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the Education Union.

“If the government was serious about levelling up education, then it would restore all the money it has cut from these schools.”

Define ‘levelling up’

A persistent criticism aimed at the government since it announced its levelling up agenda is the lack of clarity around what “levelling up” really means. Last year a report by MPs said levelling up was “yet to be defined” despite being the “central purpose and mission of this government”.

Some local authorities, who will be involved in the implementation of policies to cut regional inequality, feel similarly confused and hoped the levelling up white paper would make clear how the government intends to measure its success. It doesn’t quite define it, but there is reference to “12 missions”, which will be “given status in law”.

But experts want ministers to “translate” levelling up to make it locally relevant, according to the LGIU (Local Government Information Unit), and resolve confusion over what it is really about: economic performance, social and environmental goals or public services.

“There’s a real opportunity for the government here,” said Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive for LGIU. “Whether it’s in the title of the department or not, local government exists: there are 398 councils across the UK with more than two million staff, democratically hardwired into every community in the country through more than 20,000 elected councillors. 

“That’s an essential tool that the government must use. Levelling up can only be achieved by working with councils rather than going around them.

“If levelling up is grounded in these core principles, it has the potential to offer real transformation. But it can only be effective if it is delivered in partnership with empowered and empowering councils. If we miss that opportunity, it risks being remembered as an empty political slogan.”

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