Government must use white paper to ensure levelling up is more than a slogan
The government's levelling up strategy needs to move beyond a focus on physical infrastructure in so-called ‘left behind’ areas and invest in social infrastructure to unlock the potential of communities.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that well-funded public services are key to our success as a nation, and that underinvestment in health, education and local government have left our poorest communities vulnerable.
Long-standing health inequalities mean that the Covid-19 death rate has been highest in our poorest areas, and the attainment gap between disadvantaged school children and their wealthier peers has widened.
Despite these challenges, many of the government’s policy announcements on ‘levelling up’ have focused on investment in roads, bridges and town centres – while public services have been ignored.
The Prime Minister’s stated ambition for ‘levelling up’ – that everyone should have the same opportunities to get on in life by tackling regional inequalities in outcome and opportunity – should of course be celebrated.
Ministers were unclear about what should be ‘levelled up’, how much the strategy will cost, how long it will take and what role public services will play
Also welcome is the government’s announcement that a ‘levelling up’ white paper will be published later this year, and that a new No 10 – Cabinet Office unit led by Neil O’Brien, the MP for Harborough, will oversee its implementation.
But I fear that Mr O’Brien has quite the task on his hands.
The recent inquiry into ‘levelling up’ by the Lords Public Services Committee, which I chair, revealed a remarkable level of confusion across government. Ministers were unclear about what should be ‘levelled up’, how much the strategy will cost, how long it will take and what role public services will play.
The recent Queen’s Speech did little to address our concerns. While its announcements on physical infrastructure and employment skills were important, our witnesses told us that social infrastructure and strong local public services are just as critical to communities as investment in roads and bridges.
We heard from Susan Hinchcliffe, Leader of Bradford Council that on average, women in her city spend 23 years of life in ill-health – reducing their chances of staying in work. The Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network found that 30 per cent of the gap in productivity between the North and elsewhere in England was due to ill-health.
Research by Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute has demonstrated how a lack of investment in social infrastructure – such as libraries, childcare services and community centres – has undermined support networks in our poorest communities.
The former Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, warned us that the life chances of our most disadvantaged children were being seriously hindered by low levels of literacy and numeracy. We also learnt how investment in higher vocational colleges could have significant benefits for underperforming local areas: including higher employment and pay levels.
That’s why in the position paper that we sent to the Prime Minister we called for the upcoming white paper to be used as an opportunity to refocus the ‘levelling up’ strategy. The government should invest in preventative measures to improve health, higher education institutions to boost skills, early intervention to increase school readiness and social infrastructure to unlock the potential of communities.
What’s more, the various ‘levelling up’ funds announced so far are too small to deliver the scale of investment needed. They cannot compensate for past underinvestment in public services. If money for the NHS, schools and councils is not prioritised in the next Spending Review, deprived communities will be short-changed, and regional inequality will deepen.
But investment alone will not reduce our nation’s stark regional inequalities – power must also be redistributed. The ‘levelling up’ white paper should set out how autonomy and resources will be meaningfully devolved to local government, civil society and local public services.
During our inquiry we heard much criticism of ’levelling up’ for favouring prosperous rural areas ahead of poorer areas in the north and south, and parts of London. If ‘levelling up’ is to be more than a slogan and trust in politics in deprived communities not undermined, the government must set itself clear targets.
‘Levelling up’ should improve healthy life expectancy, employment rates, and the literacy and numeracy of children starting school. With such targets Ministers can be properly held to account.
If ‘levelling up’ is to succeed, it needs to be much more ambitious. The Government needs to move beyond a focus on physical infrastructure in so-called ‘left behind’ areas and invest in and empower the people who live there.
Baroness Armstrong is a Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the Lords Public Services Committee.