Can levelling up build a fairer society?
Can levelling up build a fairer society?

Can levelling up build a fairer society?

Welcome to the fifth Fair Comment.

Last week saw the much-delayed publication of the government’s white paper on levelling up. You’ll be pleased/dismayed to know (delete as appropriate) that we’ve dedicated all of this week’s newsletter to a discussion of the million-dollar question: can levelling up build a fairer society?

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Will Snell

Chief Executive Fairness Foundation

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The levelling up white paper

Fairness means a focus on people as well as places...

The Prime Minister said in his 2021 conference speech that “it is our mission as Conservatives to promote opportunity with every tool we have", and the levelling up white paper recognises that urgent action is needed to address longstanding inequalities in Britain. The white paper is very much framed in terms of fairness, and it is encouraging that it acknowledges the need to tackle health inequalities, educational disparities and poor-quality rented homes, among other issues. But the core mission of the levelling up agenda – to spread opportunity more equally across the country – will fail in the absence of a sharper focus on making our society and economy fairer.

Avid readers will know that, here at the Fairness Foundation, we believe that five ‘fair necessities’ (proportionality, equal opportunities, reciprocity, basic needs and equal treatment) are the building blocks of a fair society, but that none of them are in place, and that it is impossible to build a fair society in the absence of a shared understanding of fairness. The Fair Necessities outlines our vision of what a fairer Britain would look like, and how it would benefit everyone.

... which means that a broader set of issues need to be tackled

You could argue that it’s unfair to criticise the white paper for failing to address issues that its authors did not see as being within the scope of levelling up, but given that the document clearly aims to be comprehensive in scope, we’re not going to hold back from pointing out just a few of the many issues that were missing, and which need to be included in any joined-up programme of action.

Firstly, it isn’t possible to level up opportunities without tackling the unfair inequalities caused by the circumstances of someone’s birth – where they are born, their ethnicity, their gender, their family’s income, whether they are living with disabilities. Levelling up means designing out bad luck at birth, so that every child born in this country can reach their full potential.

Secondly, the solutions outlined in the white paper fall far short of the level of ambition needed to achieve its objectives. Taking health as an example: as Jo Bibby at the Health Foundation has argued, the white paper fails to join the dots between health and wealth and is ‘mission impossible’ (health inequalities was the subject of a recent Fairness Foundation event involving Jo, Sir Michael Marmot and others). The white paper also dodges the big questions on fundamental issues such as housing, where there are no targets on building social housing, but instead pledges for more ‘help to buy’ schemes that will only exacerbate existing problems.

Thirdly, the white paper completely fails to engage with some of the major structural causes of inequality (and unfairness). For example, there is nothing about our taxation system, which increases wealth inequality by failing to tax unearned and inherited income adequately or to close the tax gap. Nothing on how our justice system has become ever more unfair, or how deprived communities suffer more from environmental harms such as air pollution, or how a million workers are subjected to zero hours contracts.


Chart of the week

The healthy life expectancy gap

There were so many charts (and maps, and graphs) in the levelling up white paper, it would have been churlish not to have chosen one. The table of the Largest Cities in the World since 7,000 BC went a bit far, though. Instead, here is a map showing a dataset that never loses its power to shock - regional differences in healthy life expectancy at birth (in this case for women), from page 14 of the white paper. As it points out, at a local level, people in the top decile (least-deprived) areas of the UK can expect to live around a decade longer than people in the bottom decile (most-deprived) areas.

Poll of the week

Has the levelling up white paper got it right?

This is really two questions, rolled into one poll. Firstly, has the government diagnosed the correct set of problems around levelling up? Secondly, has it identified the right set of solutions (leaving aside the minor issue of whether and how they can be delivered)?

Thank you to those many brave souls who, spurred on by self-provided biscuity incentives, tackled last week’s nine-option behemoth on the fairest way to fund social care. Most (58%) of you plumped for increasing general taxation, followed by mandatory social insurance (19%) and increasing inheritance tax increases (11%). Only 3% were in favour of the government’s solution (increasing national insurance).

The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Health Foundation have published new analysis today of the government’s proposed amendment to the English social care charging system, which finds that it would put more people at risk of catastrophic care costs, with the biggest negative impact on older people with modest levels of wealth.

Reads of the week

Steve Schifferes at City, University of London suggests that without full Treasury backing on levelling up, Michael Gove may not have the clout to succeed. Meanwhile, Abigail Taylor at the University of Birmingham compares the UK’s plans on levelling up to those of other countries, and Jack Newman at the University of Cambridge and co-authors point out four problems with the levelling up project.

The Guardian argues in its editorial that the levelling up white paper is anaemic and inadequate to the task. Miatta Fahnbulleh and colleagues at the New Economics Foundation set out an alternative prescription for levelling up, based on five major shifts in the old local economic development model.

Two articles in The Times (paywall) give the perspectives of current and former Tory MPs on the white paper. Jake Berry suggests that a lack of investment could limit its impact, and that “to deliver this white paper, with its multi-year agenda, there is a need for it to be backed up by a multi-year commitment from the Treasury to spend and spend and to spend big in these areas”. Justine Greening argues that the government is running out of time to level up opportunity across Britain, and that “the risk is that this cross-cutting strategy is technically owned by everyone in government, but delivered by no one”.

A YouGov survey finds that a majority of Conservative voters want their party to deliver more ‘affordable’ housing and let councils buy up empty properties, and suggests that “public frustration with the housing crisis is now more evenly spread across the political divide”.

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