Levelling Up: Meeting the Challenge
The inequalities in economic performance and social conditions across the UK are now accepted by all parties as being unacceptable and shame on this country. The Prime Minister’s speech on 15th July, set out the steps the Government is taking to level up the UK, especially given the impact of the pandemic. The momentum for change must however be built up and accelerated from these initial steps since there is no quick fix to the UK’s spatial disparities.
Inequality operates at two levels – regional inequalities arising from the imbalanced economic development of the UK and the acute deprivation hotspots in areas of economic growth. These two challenges are being conflated with the risk of failing to address the core purpose of the levelling-up policy. Clarity is needed about the levelling up agenda in order to provide the confidence to local communities, leaders and long-term investors, namely to rebalance the economic geography of the UK.
Central to this is the need to recognise that, as the Prime Minster made clear, levelling up is not a zero-sum game. As demonstrated by the work of the UK2070 Commission – ‘Uplifting the north, Uplifts the south’. Not only will levelling up raise overall productivity in the UK but also it will reduce pressure on overheated housing markets in London and the wider south east of England.
Nor should levelling up be reduced to a town v cities debate. There is no doubt that many of our towns need a greater focus than they have had. However, the cities have a pivotal role to play. Without their success it is hard to see our towns succeeding.
Levelling up also needs to be seen as contributing to the global role of the UK, attracting inward investment and talent. It can be likened to changing from flying a plane with one big, highly strained engine (London and the South East) to one with multiple and distributed engines, increasing the overall capacity of the UK for growth and give it greater resilience to future global shocks.
The very depth of inequalities across the UK however means that national prescribed solutions are not appropriate. The levelling-up must be delivered through local leadership supported nationally, through local strategic bodies with access to and control of funds, as catalysts for external funds and in convening collaborative action with private partners. The push towards greater devolution in the Prime Minister’s speech is welcome.
Levelling-up policy must address the diversity of the needs of places suffering from: the legacy of deindustrialisation; stagnating earnings and incomes; or growing inequalities life chances requiring a focus on health, education and social mobility. Nothing less than large scale, comprehensive and long-term aligned action across the whole UK will deliver levelling-up.
The UK2070 Commission has set out a 10-Point plan to translate the rhetoric of levelling up into programmes of action with clear targets, for not only improving productivity but also levelling-up access to Job Opportunities: and Basic Services, and enhancing Environmental Conditions and social mobility. This includes changing the way things are done, and seen to be done. In effect this means ‘Changing the Rulebook, building on the experiences of creating successful places. The UK2070 Commission therefore undertaking work to demonstrate these principles, through Task Forces in Teesside and other areas.
A collective public and private commitment is required to transform policy into action that will shape the future of the UK over the next 25 years. The UK2070 Commission will be responding in full to the Prime Minister’s call for views on delivering this new deal for the future of the UK.
Chair, UK2070 Commission