As we wait for the government’s white paper on ‘levelling up’, many people are asking what it means and how do we achieve this in practice. A new report from Equally Ours argues that we can only level up the UK by tackling inequality between people as well as places: a more equal society is the key to our shared prosperity.
Levelling up: what we know so far
Initial government priorities for levelling up are tackling geographical inequality and investing in physical infrastructure, roads and buildings. Additional resources announced so far include the levelling up fund, the community renewal fund and the long-awaited UK shared prosperity fund. This investment in economically disadvantaged areas is much needed. To be effective, however, decision-making needs to be devolved.
Local authorities are best placed to lead change in their areas, in partnership with local residents, communities and civil society. A new funding settlement for local government, weighted for deprivation, would strengthen their role and reinvigorate local democracy. It should also be sufficient to enable local authorities to invest in social infrastructure – in good-quality public services and resilient civil society organisations.
These have vital roles to play in levelling up, arguably more than physical infrastructure (roads, buildings, digital capacity). And they too can provide an economic stimulus.
Levelling up – people as well as places
Economic prosperity is unevenly spread across the UK, and action is needed to address this. But the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities between people, not just places.
It has shown that some of us have fewer opportunities because of our sex, race, disability, class, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and migration status, amongst others. And it has shown how these factors intersect and combine to produce unfair outcomes, leaving some individuals and groups at much higher risk of covid and its wider social and economic impacts.
During lockdown, women, black, and minority ethnic workers were more likely to be key workers, exposed to greater risk of Covid-19, or working in closed-down sectors such as cleaning and catering. When schools closed, the task of home schooling fell mainly to women, reinforcing inequalities in their working lives. As we head into the next phase, the government’s own figures show that the future looks bleak for the youngest and oldest workers. Under 25s will find it harder to get into the labour market, while over 50s risk being locked out permanently.
With covid itself, mortality rates have been much higher for disabled people, and higher still for people with learning disabilities. Black and Asian people have been more likely to die from it than other ethnic groups. Reflecting on the reasons for this, Michael Gove, now secretary of state for levelling up, has said, “there can be no doubt that they reflect structural inequality in our society which has to be addressed”.
It is precisely these structural inequalities in society that the levelling up agenda needs to address. It is one thing to create new opportunities to enable people to prosper, but this will only go so far. To truly level up our country, we also need to understand and address discrimination and other barriers that hold people back.
A national equality strategy
Given how deep-rooted these inequalities are, levelling up will need to be a priority for every government department. Advancing equality must be their first thought, not an afterthought or tick box exercise – as it so often is. A national equality strategy that gives equality and social inclusion the same priority as purely economic objectives, would help to achieve this.
This would bring levelling up firmly into the mainstream. All policies, not just those labelled ‘levelling up’, would be required to demonstrate how they will tackle discrimination and disadvantage to produce better outcomes for all.
So what might a mainstream levelling up agenda look like? Below is a flavour of what an ambitious programme for levelling up might include.
1. We need to rethink the role of public services in economic renewal
Debates about social care, for example, are almost always about funding and rarely about purpose. High-quality social care would level up opportunity and outcomes for disabled people – and for all of us who need support to live the life we choose. More investment is needed. But it needs to be harnessed to a new vision for social care and new approaches to delivering support that are built around people and communities, rather than services.
Similarly, universal childcare, free at the point of use is both “a pre-requisite for a gender equal economy and a gender equal recovery from the pandemic”, and an effective way of reducing inequality and disadvantage in the early years. Investing in high-quality early-years services would directly benefit women and represent a long-term commitment to levelling up for the next generation.
2. We need to improve the quality of work and advance equality in the workplace
For too many of us, work doesn’t pay: most people in poverty are in working families. Around one fifth of workers are in precarious employment, including those on zero-hours contracts, in temporary work, or self-employed ‘gig’ workers. They will typically earn one third less than those in permanent jobs.
Women, disabled people, young people and black, Asian and minority ethnic workers are more likely to be in insecure, low-paid jobs (if they are in work at all). And they are more likely to experience unfair and discriminatory treatment in the work place because of their age, their race, their disability, or because they must balance their working lives with their caring responsibilities.
A new employment bill, based on the ‘Good Work Plan’ – the government’s response to the Taylor review of modern working practices – would provide greater security for those in work. But more needs to be done to advance equality in the workplace. For example, making ethnicity and disability pay gap reporting mandatory, with employers required to produce targeted action plans to improve practice.
3. A social security system that gives us genuine security if we can’t work, or can’t find a job
Over the last ten years a succession of welfare reforms have seen the value of benefits eroded. At the same time, there has been a marked rise in destitution in the UK: 2.4 million people were destitute at some point in 2019 (the year before the pandemic), including over half a million children. Foodbanks, a rare sight a decade ago, have become normalised, with referrals highest amongst lone parents and disabled people. This in itself is an indicator of extreme economic need and the failure of ‘the social security safety net’.
Welfare reforms designed to ‘make work pay’ have caused “unacceptable hardship” to those of us who face barriers to work: as lone parents, disabled people, or because we have a health condition. A social security system that creates hardship is not fit for purpose. If we want to build back better, to create an economy that works for everyone, our system needs fundamental reform.
4. We need to invest in safe, secure and affordable housing
In 2020, 1 in 3 households (32 percent) “had at least one major housing problem relating to overcrowding, affordability or poor quality housing”. As the Guardian has reported, “Structural racism and discrimination mean black, Asian and disabled people, gay people, people on low incomes and single parents are overwhelmingly more likely to experience poor and inadequate housing”.
A secure home gives people a firm foundation on which to build their lives. It gives children the stability they need to learn and thrive at school and makes it easier for adults to find and keep a job. It helps to create safer neighbourhoods and strengthen communities. It is hard to see how we can level up society and the economy, without addressing the crisis in housing.
We all have the right to a decent standard of living, enough food to eat, a secure home and a social security system that protects us in hard times. These are the foundations that enable each of us to live good lives and improve our prospects. They are also the basis of a more equal and more compassionate society and an economy that works for everyone. We cannot level up the country, or build back better, without first putting these foundations in place.
Equally Ours is the national network of organisations committed to making a reality of equality and human rights in people’s lives. Our members include Age UK, Mind, Stonewall, the TUC, the Runnymede Trust, Child Poverty Action Group, the Traveller Movement, the Fawcett Society, Inclusion London and Disability Rights UK. ‘Levelling Up: Firm Foundations’ is available here.