There has been much noise around the much touted launch of the Government’s white paper on Levelling Up recently. It feels like something most right-thinking people should be welcoming, with the idea of a level playing field so deeply rooted in our notion of fairness.
We live in a deeply unequal and divided society. The poorest fifth of society has only 8% of the total income, whereas the top fifth has 40% and this ‘unequal playing field’ worsens still if you look at the spread across the UK with the South East region enjoying a household total wealth over twice that of households in the North West. (https://equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk)
Yet there are reasons to question whether the levelling up programme will be any kind of magic bullet.
Firstly the level and the type of ambition. The white paper aims for a GDP rise that may sound impressive but ignores the fact that our current economic system is designed to deliver inequality – it is driven by the profit motive, seeking growth of wealth as its ultimate aim, and competition for scarce resources as the engine room of its success. The gap between the haves and have nots has not just grown, it has ballooned beyond all recognition. The Levelling Up agenda as it is currently laid out is less about challenging these fundamental building blocks of inequality, and more about making life a bit more bearable for those at the bottom.
Secondly, the detail. What few details there currently read very like the list of promises of any government, of any colour, in living memory. Less crime, more education, more jobs, better trains, faster broadband and healthier citizens. This is a wish list not a radical or ambition programme for fundamental lasting change.
So what could be different?
The wish list above is not a bad one. What it is lacking is the overarching purpose that will move it from a disjointed collection of sticking plasters to a systemic approach to radical change. When our health, our education, our lives and our livelihoods are all directed at growing our economic output, they do not produce better lives, they do not ‘level up’ our appalling inequalities and they do not, in any way, help us to sustain the planet on which we depend.
Instead what is needed is an economy focused on delivering equitable and sustainable wellbeing – one that completely changes the goalposts. In a ‘wellbeing economy’, no longer do we judge our collective success on how much we have consumed, and how much money we have made for the market. Instead we value it in terms of improvements in our lives and in the health of our communities and environment. Our collective effort in terms of our work, and our collective investment in terms of our taxes would be focused on growing our capacity to thrive – all of us, together, now and in the future.
So if we really DO want to level up, and we really DO want that to be a change that alters not just our capacity to thrive but that of our children and their children, we need to think bigger. We need to start levelling up the life opportunities between North and South, young and old, black and white. We need measures of success that value the contribution of those who have kept us alive, fed, educated and cared for through the pandemic above those who have bundled billions into offshore tax havens or pumped pollutants into our rivers and skies. New measures that judge us on the quality of the housing we provide, not just the profit of the house builders. Measures that value employment that delivers a real, living and dignity-giving wage as well as the security we need to plan for our futures, rather than seeing us as merely units of productivity and producers of someone else’s wealth.
Those measures, this ‘new’ economy, already exists. More and more places are putting the wellbeing of people, place and planet at the heart of their decisionmaking. These places are creating the conditions for levelling up, not just talking about it. Just last week, the Combined Authority covering the North of Tyne – a prime region of the levelling up agenda – passed a commitment to use a Wellbeing Economy framework developed by Carnegie Trust UK and Centre for Thriving Places, promising to ensure that the success as a region is to secure long lasting wellbeing for everyone.
This is the future. This is how we will level up – but not just moving the soil around on the playing field but by playing on a new one, where the goalposts are accessible to and beneficial for everyone.
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