Levelling up: Investing in people as well as places

Equally Ours’ Belinda Pratten on the Levelling Up white paper.   

Equally Ours is pleased that the Levelling Up white paper has been published. The focus on some of the most disadvantaged parts of the UK is important – we are one of the most geographically unequal countries in the OECD.

But to truly level up opportunities and outcomes for everyone, levelling up needs to tackle inequalities between people as well as places.

Addressing the root causes of inequality

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-standing structural and systemic inequality in the UK. It has shown how inequalities in employment, in housing, in health – in all aspects of our lives – lead to lost potential and, ultimately, to lost lives.

Discrimination and disadvantage combine and reinforce each other.  During the pandemic this has placed some groups at higher risk of Covid-19 and its wider, long term, social and economic impacts.

The White Paper is right to focus on the most disadvantaged places. But it’s not only where they live that holds people back. Many people in these places face discrimination and additional barriers, and have fewer opportunities, because of their sex, race, disability, age or other protected characteristics – over and above the economic disadvantage they and other people in these places experience.

Unless and until we address the root causes of discrimination and structural inequality, too many people won’t be able to share in our nation’s success.

Focussing on equality and social inclusion

The government needs to set a clear and ambitious mission to advance equality between people as well as places. As we have argued in our recent report, Levelling Up – Firm Foundations, all government policies need to intentionally strengthen equality and social inclusion. This too needs to be hardwired across Whitehall in a National Equality Strategy.

Such a mission would set high expectations and incentivise action to tackle injustice on the ground. The evidence is clear that there is inequality within geographical areas as well as between them. Local delivery plans would be expected to address the specific equality challenges in their area, with participation targets to make sure that levelling up policies and programmes involve, reach and benefit those who need them most.

Local and regional authorities would still have maximum flexibility to tailor their approach to local needs and circumstances, including involving local expertise and those with lived experience. This is the way to make sure no-one is left behind.

Data is essential

Equally Ours’ research has shown that embedding equality into programmes is an effective way of targeting resources to level up. It has also enabled innovation, best practice and accountability for projects that aim to improve the life chances and prosperity of under-represented groups.

This has worked best when driven by data. We therefore agree that good quality data is essential to improve local (and national) decision-making and enhance transparency and accountability. Yet while the White Paper provides detailed evidence of geographical inequalities – in relation to productivity, pay, skills, health – there is no data on inequalities between people within those places. Without this, it will be much harder to set priorities or truly measure the impact of levelling up on people’s lives.

A missed opportunity?

We all want the UK to be a more equal society, and by achieving this we will have a more prosperous society. Reaching that prosperity means creating an economy that works for everyone.

The White Paper is a start. But it will be another missed opportunity to level up the UK, unless it has a clear and ambitious mission to advance equality between people as well as places. There is still an opportunity to build that in – the government must take it.

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