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Boris Johnson talked about ‘levelling up’ two years ago. Here’s how that’s going

It’s been nearly two years since the government promised it would be levelling up the UK. The Big Issue examines its progress.

When Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019, he pledged to fight the country’s long-standing regional inequality by “levelling up” the areas most in need of investment.

The slogan featured heavily in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year and has been referenced repeatedly by ministers and Number 10 ever since.

Such is the government’s affection for the term, it has even renamed the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. It’s now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

But MPs aren’t sure what it means. A report by the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, published in July, said levelling up has “yet to be defined” despite being the “central purpose and mission of this government”.

This weekend even Tory MPs admitted levelling up will be reduced to just a slogan without bold action to deliver better living standards for thousands. It is “a lot of buzzwords that aren’t meaningful”, one told the BBC.

A Levelling Up Taskforce has been formed, committing to “tangible improvements in every part of the UK”. A white paper, promised for this year, has yet to materialise, though ministers say it will “improve opportunity and boost livelihoods across the country”. 

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The prime minister has to be fair made some references to what the government wants to achieve: raising living standards, improving public services and spreading opportunity to those in left-behind areas.

But poverty is on the rise, the UK still has a homelessness crisis and, in a matter of days, the government will cut the benefits families in the most deprived parts of the country rely on to put food on the table.

With some actual details expected at the Tory conference this week, The Big Issue looked into how much levelling up has happened in the last two years.

Raise living standards

Boris Johnson has repeatedly pledged to raise living standards in all areas — particularly those with higher poverty rates — as part of the levelling up agenda.

But poverty has soared during the pandemic and shows little sign of improving. At the end of this month, the government will plough ahead with its widely-condemned universal credit cut, removing £1,040 from the incomes of nearly six million people. 

It’s a move that will hit already-deprived areas with high uptake of the benefit, such as the north east of England, the hardest. These are the areas the government says it wants to level up. But the universal credit cut will increase sickness in areas where people already have the poorest health, according to the Health Foundation, and put additional pressure on those already struggling with rising debts and soaring living costs.

Jo Bibby, the charity’s director of health, said the “unequal impact” of the pandemic in different parts of the UK reflected “a failure to prioritise support for the most vulnerable”.

“Without a very serious attempt to improve the health of the nation, ‘levelling up’ will remain little more than a slogan,” she added.

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In July, the government admitted it had not carried out an impact assessment for the universal credit cut, including its potential to exacerbate regional inequality.

Millions of Brits are falling short of the minimum income required for a decent standard of living even if they are on universal credit or earn the national living wage, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said.

The researchers revealed that single people would still be £3,000 short of an acceptable income to cover rent, food and other essential costs even while working full-time on the minimum wage.

These problems are not exclusive to a post-pandemic UK. The number of working households in poverty hit a record high for this century just before the crisis, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Improve public services

Boris Johnson also pledged to boost public services for all. But in lockdown, the government was plagued by scandals around free school meals and supplies for children learning from home.

And the prime minister’s plan to help the NHS recover from the Covid-19 crisis by raising national insurance contributions by 1.25 percentage points was condemned for its potential to further reduce the incomes of people in the areas targeted by the levelling up agenda.

It will mean young people in areas dominated by low-income work will have even more money taken out of their pay packets, while taking a disproportionately small amount of money from the wealthy.

The tax rise would mean “a landlord who owns more and rents out dozens of properties won’t pay a penny more, but the tenants working in full-time jobs will,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said.

It’s well-documented that poverty and poor health are linked, meaning the Health Foundation warnings around the universal credit cut and other government policy decisions which could increase poverty are likely to have an adverse effect on the NHS in the long-term.

The national insurance rise will also eat into the pay increase promised to – and subsequently rejected by – many NHS workers, meaning they effectively fund their pay rises themselves.

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Spreading opportunity

When the prime minister talked about “tangible improvements” for regions other than the traditionally wealthy areas such as London and the South East, it’s likely HS2 was included in his thinking.

The high-speed railway was predicted to attract £500m investment in less affluent areas and would be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly balance the UK’s economy”, according to the leader of Leeds City Council, with 40,000 jobs set to be created in the city alone.

But reports suggest the government will scrap plans for the eastern leg linking Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds to Birmingham, raising questions around its true commitment to giving a boost to all parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the government insists its focus is on helping people into secure jobs which will pay well, instead of leaving them to rely on the welfare system.

Ministers invested in more advisers for job centres and last summer Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced the £2bn Kickstart scheme, funding six-month work placements for people on universal credit who are at risk of long-term unemployment. Views on its success levels were mixed, with some under-25s crediting it for giving them a route into stable employment though access to the scheme was patchy by area and by sector.

It is set to end in December 2021. Experts have called for it to be extended to give young disadvantaged people more opportunities after they were among the hardest hit by the pandemic fallout.

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The Covid-19 crisis devastated the jobs market as restrictions closed thousands of workplaces. But the government’s furlough scheme, supplementing most of a person’s income if they could not work due to lockdown, was lauded as a success. It supported more than 11 million people with around £66bn in payments.

But experts warn this, too, is ending prematurely. Set to be axed at the end of September, around two million people still relying on the scheme – many in hard-hit sectors such as aviation or those in deprived areas – are worried they could lose their jobs just as the universal credit cut, energy price cap rise hit alongside soaring food costs.

The number of employees on company payrolls jumped back to pre-pandemic levels in August, Office for National Statistics data showed, but experts warned the government was on track to undo its progress by scrapping the scheme too soon.

And ministers are not doing enough to improve life opportunities for young and already disadvantaged people, according to 70 per cent of Brits.

More than six of every 10 people said the pandemic widened the gap between rich and poor people, according to a study by Turn2us. 

What’s next?

Michael Gove, recently announced as the secretary of state for levelling up, said it was the “defining mission of this government”.

“Our relentless focus will be on delivering for those overlooked families and undervalued communities across the UK,” he added.

“We have a unique opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives.”

But households across the country will reach a financial crunch point in a matter of days.

As the government cuts universal credit and axes the furlough scheme – and as energy prices soar while lorry driver shortages threaten the cost of food on supermarket shelves – the areas most in need of “levelling up” will be hit hardest.

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