Published:

Joe Shalam is Policy Director at the Centre for Social Justice

Is it possible to address the nation’s deepest social problems – soaring drug and alcohol addiction, low basic skills, homelessness and reoffending, to name just a few – while answering the needs of those who are somewhat better off, but only just about managing?

It has been argued on this website, quite reasonably, that with limited bandwidth and spending power the Government must prioritise the latter in order to retain the votes ‘lent’ to the Conservative Party in 2019.

This, the argument follows, means ditching policies focused on improving life chances for the most disadvantaged, alongside other initiatives associated vaguely with Notting Hill conservatism: beneficent international aid, worshipping ‘diversity’, and prioritising fiscal restraint over public services.

In some ways, this is right. The EU Referendum and subsequent general election shone a spotlight on the millions of voters who felt, understandably, that their priorities had been neglected or outright ignored. An out-of-tune political consensus about the benefits of globalisation and London’s cultural centre of gravity had indeed distracted from the issues that mattered deeply to a large segment of society.

It is no accident, after all, that the delivery of Brexit, controlling immigration, and increasing investment in the NHS were the defining platforms on which the Conservative Government was elected with an 80 seat majority.

Yet it is a grave mistake to see an ambitious agenda for the life chances of the most disadvantaged people in society as mutually exclusive with a programme that delivers for what Michael Gove has described as the ‘Forgotten Man’. Rather, these missions are intrinsically linked – and yesterday’s Levelling Up White Paper demonstrated a welcome recognition of this.

Restoring pride means addressing social breakdown

Much has been written, including by the Centre for Social Justice, about the economics of ‘levelling up’. There is clearly an urgent need to address regional imbalances in the way money is invested across the UK, including in the shape of physical infrastructure and R&D funding beyond the M25.

But, just as importantly, levelling up is about ‘restoring local pride’ according to  O’Brien, the Levelling Up Minister. Recent research by the CSJ found that just 36 per cent of people say that they have a sense of local pride in their area, falling to just 24 per cent of those on the lowest incomes.

The same poll of 5,000 adults found that the number one challenge to the strength of community feeling and local pride today is a feeling of unsafety, driven in large part by anti-social behaviour and crime.

So while it’s understandable that rhetoric about ‘hugging a hoodie’ has been set aside in today’s political climate, policies to rehabilitate offenders, reduce recidivism and prevent children from falling into gangs cannot be seen as fluffy relics of the Cameron era.

The average reoffending rate within one year of release is 25 per cent nationally, compared to 30 per cent in the North East and 28 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber. Supporting ex-offenders with jobs, family support and stable accommodation is tangibly advancing the levelling up agenda by improving the pride and sense of community people have in their local areas. It seems that the Government has grasped this logic.

That said, one of the even more visible metrics of the how far the Government is succeeding in restoring the health of community spaces is the tragic presence of people sleeping rough. Official figures show there are at least 52 per cent more rough sleepers today than there were ten years ago.

Considerable progress has been made throughout the pandemic, and we welcome new commitments to improve the availability of housing outlined today. But it remains to be seen whether proven interventions such as Housing First, which address rough sleeping in all its complexity while saving £1.56 for every £1 invested, will be scaled up nationally to help end rough sleeping for good by 2024.

A connected issue that will not have escaped the notice of people living in towns and cities across the UK is the increased visibility of psychoactive substance use in town squares and public spaces.

Hospital admissions for drug-related mental and behavioural disorders are up by 21 per cent since 2010 – and there has been a 57 per cent increase in drug deaths. The £50 million from the Safer Streets Fund included in today’s announcement, on top of the £780 million investment in replenishing recovery services, show a welcome recognition from government that gripping the complex and related issues of addiction and prolific offending are a pre-requisite to levelling up local communities.

Spreading opportunity through skills

The White Paper also surprised some by cannibalising an announcement from the Department for Education for 55 new Education Investment Areas.

Some of the most profound social injustices are observable in our education system. Two in five primary school children from low income households are currently reading below the expected level, while a fifth of children leave primary school without expected maths skills. The White Paper’s rigorous focus on the literacy and numeracy levels of children in areas of educational decline shows powerfully how levelling up and social justice policy can come together in harmony.

Finally, in a development of underestimated significance, the Government has consciously framed levelling up as about spreading jobs and opportunity to people, turning the well-worn liberal mantra to ‘get on your bike’ on its head.

While this is, in part, about restoring the presence of decent, skilled jobs to areas of the country where employment has been eroded by the waves of globalisation, it is also about empowering people to take on better-paid jobs which give them a sense of purpose and pride.

Addressing the availability of such jobs is important. But we must also be honest about the severity of the skills gap between current vacancies and unemployed workers. Some nine million adults have low basic literacy or numeracy today, and almost half of adults from the lowest socio-economic groups have not received any training since they left education. The ambition for 200,000 people to complete high-quality skills training annually by 2030 (including 80,000 in the lowest skilled areas) will help to address this deep social injustice – but was the white paper bold enough in challenging Blair’s legacy of 50 per cent university attendance?

Recent events and cost-of-living crisis could still derail this programme

Notwithstanding all this, there are certainly positives today for those hoping the Government uses this moment to flesh out concrete plans for the most disadvantaged people and communities in the UK.

A White Paper which could have focused entirely on investment formulae and building projects (though these are undoubtedly important) has instead revealed itself as one which takes the social underpinning of levelling up seriously. This in itself is testament to the reality that you cannot deliver for the Government’s electoral coalition without gripping our toughest social challenges simultaneously.

However, two questions remain – on timing and urgency. The 2030 timeline established in the White Paper is necessary to try and turn the tanker of our economic geography around, but we simply must act with more ambition and immediacy on the social challenges afflicting the nation.

The pandemic has produced a profound ‘social backlog’: alcohol deaths are up 21 per cent, there are some 100,000 children now severely absent from school, and demand for debt advice is set to surge as the economic hit of Covid continues to materialise. We are increasingly in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. Given the intensity of these problems, which are likely to define the coming year, we can only hope that events do not derail Gove’s ambition to level up for both the just about managing and those barely surviving.