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Why levelling up still matters

June 24th 2020

Steffan Evans reflects on a new report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the levelling up agenda and why it’s as important as ever

Following December’s election “levelling up” was one of, if not the most discussed policy aspiration of the new UK Government. There was recognition that huge swathes of the UK had been left behind by the growth in the economy in the south east of England and with the Conservatives winning seats in parts of the country it had never previously held, developing policies that would strengthen the economies of former “red wall areas” was viewed as a priority. Coronavirus, and the measures put in place to control its spread, have put many of these conversation on hold but a new report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes the case that, as we emerge from the crisis, “levelling up” the UK’s economy remains as important as ever.

The JRF highlight that the need to level up the UK economy is twofold. The economic productivity of some of the UK’s nations and regions lags far behind the south east of England, including Wales’ productivity. At the same time, living standards in many of the same regions have also fallen behind, with child poverty rates generally higher. These challenges are likely to have grown greater as a result of the pandemic.

Despite no area in the UK having been left unscathed by the global pandemic, places that had the weakest economies going into the crisis have been hit the hardest. The number of people claiming out of work benefits, for example, has increased faster in the parts of the UK that were already struggling. The JRF highlight that there is an immediate need to take action to halt the disproportionate regional impact of the current crisis on the areas with the weakest economies, otherwise the “levelling up” agenda will become even harder.

In the immediate term the JRF are calling on the UK Government to target investment for job creation in the areas where there is the highest claimant count to job vacancy ratio, and to provide extended support to business in the parts of the UK which have been most disproportionately affected. It also argues that the UK Government should consider how more money can be directly transferred to households in many of the worst affected areas.

In the longer term however, the JRF are arguing that the UK Government should increase the scale of investment in basic, digital and vocational skills to match the ambitious investments in infrastructure. They also believe that the UK Government should increase the share of planned capital investment that will be invested in local public transport systems, and improve productivity in low-wage, low-productivity businesses and sectors by improving the quality of work, boosting in-work training and enhancing management practices.

Whilst the JRF’s report focuses on the role of the UK Government many of the questions raised by their work also apply to the Welsh Government. For example, will the Welsh Government ensure that it targets its investment as we recover from the coronavirus in the areas of greatest need, west Wales and the Valleys, or will it target the low hanging fruit on the M4 corridor around Cardiff? If we are to get to grips with inequality then these are some of the difficult conversations we will need to have over coming weeks and months.

The Bevan Foundation will continue to work looking for solutions to poverty both in the immediate term in response to the crisis and in the longer term. To find out more about how you can support us in this work, click here.

Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation

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