Politics

Levelling up: Government delays plans to fix ‘worst regional inequalities in developed world’

Plans outlining what levelling up really means won't be published until next year, the government has confirmed.

boris johnson gives a levelling up speech

The prime minster delivering a levelling up speech in Coventry earlier this year. Image: Andrew Parsons/Number 19

Boris Johnson’s government has come under fire for delaying its long-awaited “levelling up” white paper.

Westminster officials pledged to publish its plans for tackling regional inequality across the UK this year but confirmed this week that it would be pushed to January at least.

The delay is a major setback, according to The Equality Trust, which says the UK has “some of the worst regional inequalities in the developed world”.

Jo Wittams, acting executive director for the trust, told The Big Issue the announcement pushed the country “further away” from lifting deprived parts of the country out of hardship when it is already “near the bottom of the pack” on issues such as income, housing and gender equality.

Children in the north of England were disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, according to University of Manchester research, and could experience life-long effects of pandemic inequality.

These children lost more hours of school time, the report showed, which could result in a £24.6bn loss in wages over the decades to come. The mental health conditions they developed during lockdowns could also cost around £13.2bn in lost earnings over their working lives.

Ministers have a “duty” to carry out their levelling up agenda as soon as possible, Wittams said, if they are to improve quality of life across the UK – and must ensure any delays to the plans are used to strengthen their proposals.

They should focus in particular on redesigning the country’s “unequal economy”, she said, “something previous administrations have repeatedly failed to do.”

The government confirmed the levelling up delay just weeks after it drew criticism for scaled-back HS2 plans, which will leave areas in the north of England without the rail links previously promised to help create jobs and boost local economies.

Michael Gove, levelling up secretary, is also reportedly considering introducing American-style governors for parts of the country without mayors as part of the white paper plans.

Little detail around the government’s specific goals has been given to explain its “levelling up” agenda, though it stated it will set out policies ensuring “everyone across the entire UK can benefit from the same opportunities”.

But ministers must ensure they go far enough to tackle regional inequality on a structural level, Wittams warned. It is “often framed as focused on the north-south divide, ignoring more severe inequalities within regions, resulting in London – the region with the largest internal inequalities – being left out of the conversation completely,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “The white paper will be published in January.

“Work is progressing well, with the Levelling Up Committee having met several times and ministers working closely together to deliver the government’s central mission.”

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