Dr Ricky Kanabar is a Lecturer in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath.
Today the government has released its long awaited White Paper on Levelling Up. There is broad consensus across the political spectrum that tackling regional inequalities is a major policy issue. For example, evidence shows that at age 50 the most wealthy men will live on average an additional 31 years in good health compared to only 22-23 years among the least wealthy.
Policymakers today announced their intention for average healthy life expectancy to have risen a further five years by 2035, an ambitious target given that average healthy life expectancy flatlined among men between 2009-2011 (62.7 years) and 2017-2019 (62.9 years) and actually fell for women over the same period by 0.5 years.
But the key point is that the five year average increase is not driven solely by the most affluent. The fact where and who you are born to has a major impact on later life outcomes and drives much of the inequality we see today, indeed it goes the very heart of the social fabric of society. It is also important to acknowledge that many of the social outcomes and inequalities are transmitted across generations, so tackling inequality now is even more important if policymakers wish to break this link.
The announcements made today in the new Levelling Up White Paper are broad and ambitious. Set across 12 mission areas, the government seeks to address major policy issues which they feel will help tackle regional and national inequalities. This includes reforms to areas such as local transports systems, early and later life education and skills, tackling productivity gaps, improving allocation of spending to target the most deprived areas, health initiatives, and a shift of powers to regional and local levels.
On paper these are welcome, however whether they actually lead to a reduction in inequality crucially depends on the specific details in the initiatives themselves, and ensuring there is sufficient resources to achieve these ambitious goals. Without these, rhetoric will not become reality.
Take for example spending on education, which in 2019-20 prior to the pandemic stood at 4.4% of national income which is 8% lower than in 2010-11 when it stood at 5.6%. In light of this, how realistic is it that the percentage of primary school aged children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas increases by at least one third by 2030?
International evidence shows good reason to invest in early life skills in areas such as literacy and numeracy, as a country we rank behind similar advanced economies such as the Netherlands and Denmark based on the most recent set of Pisa rankings for maths. Such skills are crucial for the labour market and in general, such as when it comes to managing finances. Policymakers must learn from international best practice utilising evidence from countries such as Singapore regarding what types of early life initiatives are most effective and implementing these at home.
An equally important issue is tackling productivity. Compared to countries such as the US, Germany and France, the UK has a longstanding productivity puzzle or low growth in worker output. Dealing with this issue is complex. Economists often point to both supply (such as employee skills) and demand side factors (austerity and slow demand growth) in explaining the puzzle. Introducing measures to invest in high skill training is right however the devil is in the detail. What specific packages are being introduced and based on what evidence? How do these compare to existing skill and training packages already available? What skills gaps will initiatives address? Will such programmes be targeted at particular groups, for example the long term unemployed? Or those aged between 16 and 24? Will resources be allocated to the most deprived areas or those with the high rates of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training)?
Underpinning all of these questions is one crucial factor: funding. International evidence shows countries such as those in Scandinavia who spend a higher fraction of their GDP on high quality employment and training programmes (known as Flexicurity) have helped contribute to tackling unemployment and provided individuals with a skillset demanded by employers in the long run.
Policymakers are right to acknowledge the extent of inequality both across and within regions. But they are not the first government to do so. Inequalities have become entrenched in the UK over many decades and cannot be resolved overnight. Thus, one policy in isolation alone is not enough and a holistic cross departmental approach is required.
For policy to be effective alongside resources, policymakers must ensure there is sufficient scrutiny of policy initiatives. Evaluation of programmes should be built-in from the outset to ensure spending is being allocated efficiently, and reforms to specific initiatives can be made. This government, similar to previous ones, has the chance to improve life outcomes for all in society, the question is whether they choose to do so.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.