‘Levelling Up’: continuing the conversation

‘Levelling Up’ – used here to refer to the wider UK Government policy agenda rather than the specific Levelling Up funding stream – is predominantly about tackling place-based economic inequality, economic development, and productivity.  As set out in our previous WCPP blog, this is a conversation that is critical for Wales.   

Whilst ‘Levelling Up’ seeks to target places (regions, local authorities, cities, rural towns) that have been disproportionately disadvantaged economically, questions have been raised about whether it’s reaching the areas and people most in need. 

For example, the formula used by the UK Government to target areas for funding has attracted criticism for not including the Index of Multiple Deprivation, or any metric for deprivation, in its calculations.  The think tank NPC has more recently commented that the funding is not going to areas with the highest rates of deprivation in Scotland and Wales. 

A just-released set of professional perspectives from the Institute for Economic Development (IED) suggest people and communities are being ‘left out of the narrative’ and that a ‘trickle-down economics’ will mean only ‘benefits for a few whilst barely touching many’.   

Indeed, ‘Levelling Up’ seems neglectful of inequalities that, if all are to be taken ‘on the journey’, need to be factored back in.   

A closer consideration of WCPP’s work on two key aspects of equality in Wales – poverty and race equality – is illuminating in this regard. 

Firstly, in relation to poverty, almost a quarter of people in Wales are currently living in poverty. Evidence from the Welsh context indicates that the Coronavirus pandemic increased the number of people living in poverty; deepened poverty for those people already living in poverty; and worsened the consequences of being on a low income.    

Research commissioned by WCPP (forthcoming) suggests that while place-based regeneration policies have an important role to play, they have limitations in relation to poverty reduction.  To make sure those who are disadvantaged benefit from such policies, clear equity and social inclusion objectives need to be set, together with adequate forms of evaluation and monitoring – growth and prosperity cannot be expected to organically trickle down; real inclusion requires proactive engagement of the most disadvantaged in the community and a focus on understanding and tackling the barriers to engagement.  This includes addressing the ‘costs’ of participating in skills development, training, or new/improved job opportunities – for example through providing affordable, accessible and flexible transport and childcare – as well as paying attention to multiple other factors (for example access to social security benefits, felt stigma) that combined make it extremely difficult to forge a pathway out of poverty. 

Moreover, as argued by Professor Hugh Lauder from Bath University, a place-based approach overlooks the more widespread nature of (child) poverty: ‘a truly significant and deeply troubling chasm in society, evident in every town and city’.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns of the ‘double injustice’ of an economic recovery that fails to reduce poverty in the UK.  We cannot afford, the Foundation maintains, not to ‘level up’ on both. 

Secondly, in relation to race equality, research commissioned by WCPP has produced six evidence reviews on key policy areas with the potential for greatest impact on improving race equality in Wales.   The reviews include a focus on employment and income, housing and accommodation and education (including training and development, higher and further education). The summary report draws on the evidence to advocate for greater engagement and outreach with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, including more opportunities for co-design and co-production at the heart of policy design, delivery, and evaluation.  Some, if not all, of these six reports and this core message from the summary have relevance for the Levelling Up agenda. 

Race and socio-economic status together are powerful dimensions of inequality, interact with each other and shape individuals’ experiences and opportunities.  As others have noted, the Levelling Up agenda must ‘hold space’ for this ‘complexity’ and consider barriers beyond those just ‘relating to geography’.   

Our forthcoming poverty review shows that, of the low-income households the most affected by the pandemic in Wales – both in terms of the risk of contracting Coronavirus and its economic consequences – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, women and young people were the worst affected.  It’s clear there needs to be further attention given to race equality and poverty that feeds into any meaningful notion of Levelling Up. 

The Levelling Up funding streams require direct conversations between UK Government and Welsh local authorities.  However, reintroducing Welsh Government legislation and policy into the frame might enable a stronger focus on poverty alleviation and race equality.   

For example, The Equality Act 2010 (Statutory Duties) (Wales) Regulations 2011 includes requirements for local ‘equality impact assessments’ and ‘strategic equality plans’; the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act (2015), focuses on ‘a more equal Wales’, as well as ‘a more prosperous Wales’, and the Socio-Economic Duty (31 March 2021) requires consideration of how to reduce inequality and deliver better outcomes for those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage.  The forthcoming Welsh Government Race Equality Action Plan (REAP) is situated within and seeks to help to operationalise an anti-racist strategy for Wales.   

Taken together, this enabling legal and policy framework and strong evidence base on poverty alleviation and improving race equality, can help to contribute a broader dimension of social justice alongside economic development to the conversation around Levelling Up in Wales.  This might be of assistance to those local authorities navigating a range of challenges and tensions involved in submitting bids to the new funding streams and delivering successfully within the Welsh context.