This time last year we were hoping that by now we would have seen the worst of the pandemic. However, a year on we are still coping with the fear of another wave of illness, prolonged social restrictions and great economic uncertainty.
The UK2070 Commission’s assessment on the impact of pandemic highlights three major concerns.
Firstly, the pandemic has laid bare the deep social inequalities in the UK that were described in our report ‘Make No Little Plans’. This has been so clearly demonstrated by the growth in foodbanks and the public debate about the loss of £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit that went to the poorest in our society.
Secondly, these inequalities have been deepened. This is not only reflected in take home pay [i] but also wealth. Whilst total UK wealth had increased during the course of the pandemic, the poorest households were more likely to have run down rather than increase their savings and not share in the house price boom.[ii]
And thirdly, the need for action has been made more urgent. Action is needed now to rebalance the economy. The Prime Minister had recognised this in his speech six months ago setting out his commitment to levelling up, but we still await the White Paper he promised.
We are looking to this to unleash action at scale that will unlock the economic potential not only of our great cities, like Liverpool and Bristol but also places such as Blackpool and Weston-Super-Mare. This needs to be at a scale to rebuild the social infrastructure of the UK to level up social conditions in terms of health, education and culture. This also needs to be aligned with comparable effort in Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast – that is across the whole of the UK.
The promised White Paper is therefore now urgently required and it must be more than a repackaging of old policies, a re-presenting of existing budget commitments or a reinforcing of Whitehall powers. It must enable fresh thinking and ideas, enhance resources for action and empower local leaders.
The work of the UK2070 Commission is now even more important. The rebalancing the UK socially and economically must be a national goal. The problems are now recognised and as the Prime Minister has stated these social inequalities are a national ‘disgrace’.[iii] Action must be taken now to transform rhetoric into action through a long term, forward – looking agenda to shape the future of the UK.
Responsibility lies not just with the government for action. It also lies with local leaders, arms length bodies, NGOs and communities. Government, local leaders and all parties need to sign up to a Shared Declaration of Intent for building a fairer, stronger and more sustainable future for all in the UK and to start now with urgency to implement the programme of action.
[i] Wages in the North were lower than the rest of England before the pandemic and these fell further during the COVID-19 pandemic (from £543.90 to £541.30 per week) whereas wages increased in the rest of the country (from £600.80 to £604.00 per week).