It is obvious that we are not going to come out of this pandemic as the same people; something somewhere will have happened along the way. Some have paid the ultimate price and everyone has been affected one way or another. It’s the same with our communities – no place has been left untouched. What is increasingly evident is how uneven the impacts have been, and the challenge this now presents for the government in its ambitions to level up.
A paper published last weekend from the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) makes this abundantly clear:
“The UK economy is grossly unequal, and the pandemic has further exacerbated these inequalities. Furthermore, there are risks that the same inequalities in health, education, investment and productivity that meant we went into the pandemic especially vulnerable will cause the recovery to be unequal too.”
United Kingdom: an unequal society
The fact that the UK started from a bad place in terms of inequality of life chances and opportunities is widely recognised. The Marmot Review 10 Years On showed the growing health divide between the most deprived neighbourhoods and the wealthy ones, and the extent to which improvements in life expectancy have stalled. As the report says, “place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less”.
When the social mobility commission published its State of the Nation report in July this year, it concluded that the government was “nowhere near” achieving its stated aims of “levelling-up”:
“COVID-19 has given many people their first real insight into how others live and how unequal the United Kingdom is. On our TV screens, we have witnessed cramped living in poor quality, high-rise accommodation where families sleep four to a room, with no outside space and no digital access. Some of the most pertinent debates about this pandemic were the reality of widespread food poverty driving thousands more to rely on foodbanks to feed their children.”
Growing gap between rich and poor
The Guardian reckons that from the start of the pandemic “the gap between the richest 10% of families and the median family grew to 55 times the typical household income”. Whilst the size of the gap is staggering, the fact that inequalities have widened is not. As the IPPO paper points out, “most of the jobs lost during the pandemic were low-pay and low-skill, while most of those created were at a higher skills level”.
You only have to look at the stats to see that those who live in the most deprived neighbourhoods have suffered higher rates of infection and mortality during the pandemic. These are people who themselves have poorer health outcomes (more smokers and higher levels of obesity, for example) and who live in communities where work centres around less-secure and lower-paid jobs, including tourism or hospitality, often on zero-hours contracts. Coastal communities have been particularly impacted by the consequences of Covid-19, for this reason.
These places and people went into lockdown already disadvantaged. As the Centre for Cities notes, those circumstances then affect the nature and ability of these places to recover from the impacts of coronavirus:
“Areas in the North and Midlands with weaker low-skill service-based economies have seen the greatest economic damage, making levelling up places like Birmingham, Hull and Blackpool at least four times harder.”
Levelling up is growing harder by the day
People with few savings have had to dip into what little they may have, and many have been pushed into accruing further debt. Those who went into the pandemic already better off – in secure employment and/or with savings built up – have managed to grow their wealth. This is what has exacerbated the growing divide.
And this is now what makes the government’s promise to level up so challenging.
We went into the pandemic one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. That is not news but a sad fact. The divisions have always been there but had widened after 11 years of austerity measures. Covid has simply exacerbated pre-existing divisions.
We are also one of the most centralised countries, with Whitehall being less responsive to needs outside of London and the South East. The IPPO paper cites Treasury figures that show spending on economic affairs is £541 per person less in the North of England than in London.
Does the government understand the scale of the challenge? It seems not. The current discussion about levelling up is now riven by cries of ‘pork barrel’ politics. According to the Guardian, Tory councils are doing better per capita at £93 per head of population compared with £65 per head for Labour councils after the first tranche of funding.
It seems not only is there little political will to tackle the underlying causes of inequality, but also that Boris Johnson may be too concerned about saving his own political skin rather than that of those in the most deprived communities. If he spent as much time on the policy detail for levelling up as he has done recently on nobbling his own backbenchers, then we may start to see some progress.
Johnson’s refusal to attend the debate on standards, or his refusal to apologise for the government’s handling of the Paterson case, suggests he thinks there is no case to answer with regards to cash for peerages or breaches of lobbying rules. But as the number of scandals grow (see the list of scandals outlined in the Guardian), the thing that’s really sticking is that this is a government that’s good at sleaze.
The news is salacious and does little to improve our reputation around the world. For those living on the margins and waiting for the government to deliver on the promise of levelling up, this is both farce and deeply troubling. Johnson will no doubt use smoke and mirrors, and an old dead cat, to detract attention from the fact that he simply is not delivering. Worse, the longer he governs like this, the harder it will be for any successor to turn things around.
The malaise is deepening as inequality is widening. This week Johnson will have to extract himself, and his government, from the current mire they are in. There are other holes opening up that Johnson will fall into in the coming months, and extracting himself from those will be increasingly difficult.