Levelling Up has done nothing for inequality

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson promised to answer “at last the pleas of the forgotten people” by levelling up across Britain.

His speech resonated with voters in “red wall” constituencies, as well as with residents in surrounding towns and cities in the North, Midlands and Wales. After decades of under-investment in the North, who could disagree that higher wages, better quality jobs, more affordable housing, increase in funding in schools, more apprenticeships and training and economic growth and investment were not needed in former industrial and mining towns across the country? These areas had not just been neglected by former Conservative PMs; they had also been ignored by Labour leaders.

Two years on from Johnson’s 2019 election win, it’s difficult to see what has been achieved.

Michael Gove, minister for Levelling Up, will probably point to various schemes and projects in the delayed White Paper to be published this week – rebuilding hospitals in Morpeth and County Durham, replacing older trains in the North East, “towns fund” money to a handful of North East councils -–- but to date, the Levelling Up strategy has been woefully under-funded, fragmented and lacking in detail. 

Worse it could be argued that levelling up plans have failed even on its most basic promise of higher wages and a higher living wage as the poorest groups are pushed further into the brink of poverty. Analysis by NEF shows that in the last two years the poorest 50% of UK families are £110 worse off annually, in contrast to the top 5% of families have seen gains of more than £3,300. We’re still unclear what ‘levelling up’ means in practice, but we can be fairly certain that it doesn’t mean that the poorest should get poorer.

At the same time, the north-south divide has persisted with significant variations in the rise of disposal real incomes across the regions since December 2019. Far from rebalancing the north-south divide, socio-economic inequality within the country has widened with smaller rises in disposal incomes in the north compared to higher rises in the south.

But it’s not just particular regions that appear to be losing out; it’s also disadvantaged groups across all the regions. 

Disadvantaged young people, children growing up poverty, lone parents, disabled people and Black and ethnic minority groups have not fared well during the pandemic, but they do not feature in the government’s discussion on levelling up. 

The number of children in poverty in England has risen by around 500,000 over the last 5 years (with the greatest increase in the North East), yet levelling up does not include a specific plan/target to address child poverty. 

Worse, with astonishing increase in food prices, soaring energy prices, the government’s removal of £20 uplift from Universal Credit and increases in national insurance from April 2022, we know that millions more will be worse off – and put into impossible positions of choosing between heating or eating. 

It’s hard to see how you can level up ‘left behind’ regions and places without levelling up disadvantaged groups of people. 

For levelling up to be meaningful, it has to address the needs of people. Polls show that the public have low expectations of ‘levelling up’ but that doesn’t mean that they don’t know what their areas need: more work placements, apprenticeships, training opportunities for young people; increase in funding for primary and secondary schools; increase in investment in adult skills and training; faster internet speed, and regular and affordable transport – these are just some of the priorities for local people. 

High paying local jobs for young people with degrees remains a significant issue in places like Bradford (where 1 in 4 people are under the age of 18), which continues to lose graduates to the South and London, yet there’s little evidence that levelling up investment and schemes in Bradford are meeting people’s expectations.

As one college principal, frustrated with the brain-drain in Keighley said in a Channel 5 news interview two weeks ago: “levelling up is potentially a slogan waiting for a policy.”

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson promised he would take ‘personal responsibility’ for the change that he wants to see with levelling up the country and that “the buck stops here”. Half way through his term, it’s difficult to see what meaningful change he has achieved for people in red wall constituencies, let alone ‘across Britain’. Not only is inequality between regions getting worse, but disadvantaged groups are being pushed more to the breadline. And with Boris Johnson stumbling from one political crisis to another, it’s hard to be convinced that levelling up is anything more than another campaign slogan on the side of a bus.

By Dr Zubaida Haque Executive Director, The Equality Trust 

The Equality Trust is a member of the Structural Inequalities Alliance which includes the CBI, ProBono Economics, Equally Ours, Women’s Budget Group, UCL Public Policy, the Health Foundation, John Ellerman Foundation, as well as several other third sector organisations.