A way forward: Tackling inequalities

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With the recent debates in the UK around the rollout of Universal Credit, levels of inward and outward migration post Brexit, and gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting, injustice and inequity have become increasingly prominent in political discourse. As a range of reports have highlighted, 13.5 million people in the UK are living in poverty and the percentage of children in relative low income has increased in recent years. Similarly, close to eight in ten companies and public-sector bodies in the UK pay men more than women and disadvantage on the basis of ethnicity remains an entrenched feature in the UK labour market. It is therefore clear that despite demographic, socio-economic, and cultural transformations that have occurred over the past decades, vast inequalities remain in UK society. In addition, the state of the UK is now increasingly characterised by deep disparities both between and within the regions and nations of the UK.

Whilst undoubtedly topical, none of these issues, are however new. For example, it has been more than fifty years since equality commissions were first established in the UK and other European and North American states. Nonetheless, the question remains as to what extent has there been real progress in tackling embedded inequalities in UK society since the emergence of equality legislation, and if there is in fact a risk that inequalities across the UK will instead worsen.

Such questions are at the heart of UCL’s Public Policy and Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality’s work seeking to examine and research the deep rooted, structural, and relational inequalities that persist in UK society. Cross-disciplinary research can help to shed light on ways in which academic scholarship can examine these issues and how we may work towards solutions and inform policy to tackle the inequalities and injustices that remain entrenched in society.

As part of our work in connecting researchers with policy professionals, last week I had the privilege of attending the launch of the UK2070 Commission at the House of Lords. Chaired by Lord Kerslake, the Commission is an independent inquiry into city and regional inequalities in the UK which will conduct a review of the policy and spatial issues related to the UK’s long-term city and regional development.

As the Commission sets out, “the persistent inequalities between the cities and regions of the nation need to be challenged. Cities and regions are increasingly taking ownership of this challenge through the devolution agenda, yet deeper structural inequalities cannot be tackled by local action alone. A national framework is needed. This need is heightened by the political and economic uncertainties brought by Brexit and the global challenges of technological and climate change. A sustainable and people-centred approach to urban and regional development in the UK is needed to provide a clearer vision of their common future.” Indeed, during the invited responses from Lord Jim O’Neill, Prof Denise Lievesley (Prinicpal of Green Templeton College, Oxford University), and Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive, The RSA), the need to re-evaluate the relationship between town hall and Whitehall was emphasised and means by which to do so suggested.

The inquiry therefore states its aims are to:

· Reinforce the devolution agenda for cities, regions and nations to maximise their potential for sustainable and inclusive growth;

· Add value to the emerging range of national strategies for planning, housing, industry, land use, environment and infrastructure — through greater integration and clarity in their place-based implications;

· Develop more inclusive and empowering approaches to national and strategic decision-making; and investment for regions, cities, towns and communities; and

· Draw on UK and international experience in tackling issues of spatial inequalities.

At the launch, it was also noted that the Commission will be looking back fifty years, as well as forward fifty years, with the titular 2070 acting as recognition that timescales for successfully tackling inequalities and enacting city and regional development plans are often long, in contrast to the short-termism of political cycles. As Dr Lucy Natarajan (UCL Bartlett School of Planning), who is supporting UCL’s contribution to the Commission, has remarked: “The time frame of the Commission’s work — looking to 2070 — is a direct challenge to short-term approaches to decision-making and narrow ways of thinking about ‘the public’. In responding to present spatial inequality in the UK, we need to understand shared priorities for the future and the needs of individual places and communities. We are supporting the Commission through our research on how to build knowledge that can help to collectively make choices.”

A number of UCL researchers will be contributing to the Commission, alongside academic colleagues from the University of Manchester, the University of Sheffield, the Heseltine Institute at the University of Liverpool and the University of Cambridge. The call for evidence is now open and will remain so until 16 November 2018.

For more information see: http://uk2070.org.uk/contribute/. The Commission’s 10 propositions on which evidence would be welcomed can be accessed here: http://uk2070.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/UK2070-Commission-Call-For-Evidence-Low-Resolution.pdf.

Siobhan Morris is coordinator for the UCL Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality.

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Supporting engagement and collaboration between UCL researchers and policy professionals