UK Has Made ‘Glacial’ Progress Toward Levelling Up, IFS Says

(Bloomberg) -- Closing the living standards gap between the poorest and wealthiest regions of the UK has been painfully slow or gone backwards because the government has failed to deliver on its promise to “level up” the country, new research shows.

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An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies of the 12 “missions” to reduce regional inequality by 2030, set out by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February 2022, found that progress “has been glacial and, on many measures, gaps have widened.”

Following the 2016 Brexit vote, which was seen by many as an angry rejection of years of London-centric policy making, the government pledged to do more to spread the wealth. First, Prime Minister Theresa May promised to help “just about managing” households, which her fellow Conservative successor Johnson re-booted as “levelling up.”

The pledge helped Johnson win the 2019 election with a strong majority, as the Conservatives took working-class seats across Northern England and the Midlands that had been historically held by Labour. The Tories under Rishi Sunak now face being wiped out in these “Red Wall” districts and voted out of power nationally.

There is little evidence things will improve after the election on July 4, the IFS warned. Both the Tories and Labour have promised to tackle regional inequalities in their campaigns but neither has a plan to fix the worst-hit public services.

Since the Levelling Up White Paper was published, disparities have widened in several key areas, the IFS said.

  • The share of pupils in England who meet expected standards at the end of primary school has fallen to 60% from 65% in 2019. Only 10 local authorities have 70% or more 11-year olds meeting the target, all of which are in London.

  • The number of further education and skills courses fell by 14% on average between 2019 and 2023, driven by a near 20% drop in the already lowest-skilled areas.

  • The employment gap between the best and worst performing tenth of local authority areas in the UK is at its widest since at least 2005.

  • Public transport use has declined, with the gap between London and the rest of England now at its second widest since 2003.

To get back on track, the next government will need “substantial resources and changes in how they are allocated,” the IFS said.

The research was funded by the abrdn Financial Fairness Trust and the Nuffield Foundation.

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