Levelling up: piecing together a complex puzzle

Evening out equality across the UK is about more than demolishing the red wall

The UK Government’s promise to ‘level up’, first espoused in the Conservative manifesto ahead of the December 2019 general election and since ‘doubled down’ on in light of COVID-19, has attracted extensive interest and column inches. But given that there is a rich research base and much is already well-known about the nature of structural inequalities in the UK (the Lammy Review and Deaton Review to name just two examples), what evidence-based policy responses can, and should, sit underneath the rhetoric.

If the evidence base has shown us anything in recent years, it’s that levelling up requires much, much more than centrally-allocated funding for infrastructure, and that geography alone is just one small piece of the inequalities puzzle.

People not Place

Released at the start of 2020 the Marmot Review 10 Years On was a sobering read. The study found that over the past decade, rather than an increase in health and life expectancy, and decrease in inequalities and poverty, the opposite was true. “The amount of time people spend in poor health has increased across England since 2010” the report stated, adding that this decline was a result of many inter-related factors, determined by the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age as well as inequities in power, money and resources.

Deprivation, inequality and lack of opportunity were not solely factors of geography between places. There are also marked differences within places, and this goes beyond England and across the entire UK. While there are marked differences between the North, Midlands and southern coastal towns with areas such as Greater London, “throughout England there are communities and places, that have been labelled as ‘left behind’”, reports the Marmot Review.

Similar geographical inequalities persist in the devolved nations as well. UCL’s review of intersectional inequalities, and its report, Structurally Unsound, found similar patterns of inequalities in health, education and employment in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

These findings were quickly seconded in the release of the UK2070 Commission final report in February 2020. Led by Lord Kerslake, the UK2070 Commission stressed that “issues of economic underperformance and wellbeing affect all parts of the UK” and that the debate should be framed in terms of “North and South, Towns and Cities, and Urban and Rural”, rather than pitting communities against one another in a scramble to secure investment. Investment that is sorely needed everywhere.

These studies found that not only are inequalities in health, wealth and education, growing across the UK, but that they are persistent, systematic and interrelated, and that action to address them must be “comprehensive, large-scale, and long-term” if the UK is to make meaningful change in tackling structural inequalities.

Furthermore, they advocate a people first approach, decentralising decision-making and empowering devolved authorities and local communities with agency and action to change the structure of society.

Re-orientating work

So how does the UK get there? 2020 may prove to be a watershed moment for our society. The combination of Brexit and COVID-19, as well as renewed focus on the climate crisis ahead of the UK hosting COP-26 (delayed to autumn 2021), present a fork in the road: on one hand they may give us the pause, opportunity and impetus to begin to do things differently, on the other the possibility of further entrenching existing and deep rooted inequalities.

The Government has focused its efforts on the economy and infrastructure, justifiably perhaps reconciling to ‘create the jobs and they will come’. There has been much focus on technology, the AI and fourth industrial revolution, R&D, and skills and job creation — the announced investment in Institutes of Technology, plans for a UK ARPR, and Office for Talent for example.

There’s no question that the UK should, and can, be at the forefront of this brave, new tech-driven world, but realistically very few of, potentially, more than 3 million unemployed will be taking on these highly-skilled and specialised roles. Nor will it create opportunities for SMEs, the UK’s five million self-employed or the arts, which contribute more than £110 billion to the UK economy.

As the world around us continues to change at pace, these sectors will all need to adapt to a new economy and a new way of working. Challenging yes, but also presenting an opportunity to rethink the way we work, learn and progress, and to embed equity in to practice.

Equality of skills

Perhaps the clearest path to both levelling-up the economy and addressing systemic inequality is through education, training and skills.

In June 2020, UCL and the British Academy ran a series of workshops on the topic of AI and the Future of Work. Participants from government, academia, business and education discussed what some of the challenges and opportunities might look like, as well as how we might achieve action and who would be responsible for delivering it. Though focused on AI and work, and in particular equity and quality, the discussion had much further reaching insights for the future of work.

In a rapidly changing world ‘soft’ skills and the ability to be agile and re-learn will be more important than ever for the majority of the workforce. Workers should be empowered not only to develop their skills, but also to change their workplaces with the skills that they have gained. Even if the UK economy becomes more technology driven, there will be a concurrent growth in ‘low-code’ and ‘no-code’ jobs, which will require a nascent understanding of technology, but more importantly an ability to work alongside it.

All sectors will have a role to play in such a transition. All sectors will have a role to play in such a transition. But what this role is, how they play it and the infrastructure needed is still open to debate.

What policies are really required?

Over the coming weeks and months, Policy Postings will bring together a series of blogs on the levelling up agenda, looking at some of the challenges and opportunities for different regions, scales and sectors in more detail, as well as what the innovative, and not so innovative, policy responses might be.

Harnessing these opportunities, and distributing them fairly across the UK with, instead of on, communities may be the best chance we have of levelling the UK’s very bumpy playing field.

Katherine Welch is Head of External Engagement and Partnerships for UCL Public Policy and the UCL Grand Challenges

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