What does levelling up mean for London and how do we achieve it?
When we talk about levelling up, many people think about deep-rooted inequalities faced by communities in the North of England or the Midlands but what does it mean for London?
The mission to quash regional inequalities is, of course, right but we must not focus entirely on northern regions. It is not about levelling down London or taking opportunity away from people, it is about levelling up the whole country. London is Britain’s powerhouse - a levelling up strategy that doesn’t have the capital as a part of it is doomed to fail.
In many ways London is a microcosm of Britain, with the area that you are born into still playing a major role in your life opportunities. Levelling up is about everyone having the same chance to get on in life, wherever they are born or live.
Levelling down happens because people don’t have the right connections, know the right places to find an opportunity, or it’s so far away it is unachievable. During coronavirus and lockdown, we’ve seen the digital divide and access to technology – hardware, software and skills – emerge as a key barrier for certain children to access education.
For others, housing conditions make it virtually impossible to study or work at home, or people have health or disability challenges that end up blocking careers in a way that is wholly unacceptable, unnecessary and see us waste talent on a huge scale. These are just a few examples of the variety of reasons why we currently have inequality of opportunity in London.
Levelling up to achieve equality of opportunity cannot be easily fixed with a one size fits all approach. An area that currently ranks poorly for social mobility does not give us the whole picture. Certain areas which rank well for social mobility on most indices can mask sharp decline in social mobility at different life stages, such as early years. To fix these issues a thorough understanding of the challenges individual communities face is vital.
We need a clear strategy for levelling up and investment from the Government but our political system should also embrace the fact that it does not have all the solutions. Communities, businesses and universities need to play their role in transforming Britain too and politicians must recognise their importance and use their expertise. Local knowledge is key when it comes to tailoring any national approach to different communities who face very different problems.
There’s no denying that as a country we’ve seen more division in recent years than perhaps at any other time in modern history, but surely equality of opportunity is that rare issue that we can all agree on.
Covid-19 has levelled down our country and therefore made levelling up not only more urgent, but even harder. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently warned that time out of the classroom will have long-lasting consequences on future earnings, estimating that pupils stand to lose an average of £40,000 in lifetime earnings. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds will be most affected, resulting in a double blow of low social mobility and high economic decline caused by Covid-19.
In 2015, the UK played a lead role in creating the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and getting them agreed by 193 countries. They provided a framework for change, proving that with a common plan, there can be common and collective action.
Former Education Secretary Justine Greening, who was involved in the creation of the UN SDGs, recently launched a set of ‘Levelling Up Goals’ designed to focus efforts on driving equality of opportunity at key life stages. They include closing the early years development gap by delivering the best possible start for every child; opportunities for career advancement for all based on ability and potential, not connections; closing the digital divide and tackling the savings gap that prevents many people from going as far as their talents could take them. We have heard lots of rhetoric from politicians around levelling up but Goals like these are crucial to provide a benchmark of progress being made.
As we look ahead to lockdown being lifted, it is clear that the Government must act now with a long-term plan to level up London and the rest of Britain. Levelling up must move beyond rhetoric and debate.
The public needs politicians to put aside their differences and come together behind a broader national plan to spread opportunity throughout Britain and build back better. We need the political parties that represent our day-to-day democracy to rise to the challenge, alongside businesses, universities and charities, to level up Britain.