‘Levelling up’ is a political policy that aims to reduce social and economic imbalances between areas and social groups in the UK. The goal is to create more opportunities for everyone across the UK.
In this POV, Responsiv will summarise and interpret research conducted by PwC into the policy of ‘levelling up’ the UK
The recovery of Covid-19 has the government confirming their commitment to reducing geographical inequalities. There is a focus on supporting and providing economic opportunities at a local level through the levelling up fund, with focuses on investing in local culture, town regeneration, and improving local transport.
PwC suggest that businesses and government should be working together to provide a fair recovery and greener economy. This follows the assessments that having remained closer to home throughout the pandemic, people have re-evaluated their priorities about work-life balances, and that jobs lost are likely to not return in favour of automation. These factors, combined with an increased awareness of climate issues, moves the job market towards new jobs within the ‘greener’ economy.
The three big challenges identified by PwC include:
- How to catalyse the economy for fair and sustainable growth
- How to deal with vulnerabilities exposed by Covid-19
- How to tackle the challenge of inequality across society
After surveying 4,000 members of the public found that the government’s focus has previously been on the wrong things; real assets such as transport and communication infrastructure not being of public priority. Rather, public concerns lay with improving housing supply and quality, jobs, and town centres.
Figure 1: Levelling up – public priorities
PwC’s findings suggest that for levelling up to be a success, the government needs to address inequalities within regions and communities rather than broad concepts like the North-South divide. This can be seen as a form of market research – segment your audiences and address their concerns separately instead of broad sweep action that appeases no one.
In this section, Responsiv will be exploring and interpreting what we believe are key findings from the PwC report on ‘Levelling up the UK.’
- The government must focus on supporting imbalances at a local level
- Priorities differ depending on location
- Businesses to play a bigger role in levelling up
The government must focus on supporting imbalances at a local level
Public polls suggest that ‘only 8% of people agree that central government “listen to people like me” or ‘takes my needs into account when making decisions.’ This implies that public views on any activity by the government to level up the country will be indifferent at best, as people do not believe these changes will positively impact their lives.
In contrast to this, polls found that ‘23% and 29% of the public agreed that local government “represents people like me”.’ The connotations of local government being ‘empathetic and approachable’ give them a better opportunity and position to provide perceived positive impacts to their constituents based on their needs and wants; increasing the likelihood of change adoption within a locality.
PwC found that the Covid-19 pandemic saw more communities and local authorities being proactive and taking control of the levelling-up agenda in their local area. Rather than waiting on central government, local governments are used the opportunity to take action to drive local economic renewal.
There appears to be a stronger sense of identification with local government regarding their communities. This indicates that local interventions should be aligned with these communities to make the greatest impact. A data driven approach based on local insight and knowledge will enable the right actions to be taken on specific places to fulfil the needs of different areas and stakeholders.
As with any business project, including stakeholders and end users from the offset, addressing their concerns and giving them a voice, leads to more successful outcomes. When a change is ‘done to people’ approach is used over a change is ‘done with people’ approach, there is always hesitation and rejection. Talking to the people that will be affected by the levelling up initiatives will ensure you get their support and solve the issues that actually matter to them.
Central government is unable to do this as acutely as local governments can. This is why any levelling up activity needs to be channelled and managed by local authorities with the support of central powers and funding.
Priorities differ depending on location
In elaboration of the previous finding, generalising the needs of different areas across the UK is not a reflection of reality.
PwC suggest that the approach to levelling up should be one that targets specific priorities in different areas. What works in Cornwall will not necessarily work in Manchester. It is evident the approach should consider the differences in economic, societal, and environmental pressures; all these factors change based on the location, and can even differ widely within a single county. PwC finding that inequalities inside the same region are often greater than when compared to others.
What is not clear from PwC’s research is how their public polls sample these different areas. Whilst there is a consensus for improved housing, jobs, and high streets, there is no identification of whether these responses are from largely different locales; are prosperous towns being surveyed alongside less prosperous areas. If they are, it counters the argument of different areas having different requirements (on the surface), but maintains that central government is focusing on change not based on market research.
Circumstances in different UK cities suggests that there is a need to put people at the heart of decisions for levelling up their area. Ensuring communities are heard, engaged, and valued can help to build place-based identity and purpose. PwC found that there is an enthusiasm for change, for example having more independent restaurants on the high streets. This highlights the potential for tailoring local solutions for each area.
Dimensions of equality
52% of those surveyed feel there is too much inequality in the UK. The pandemic has highlighted this plight to residents, with 38% of respondents saying their local community has become more important to them, compared with 44% who feel it has increased social divisions in every region. This suggests that inequality was hidden amongst the movement of people; when people worked in different areas to their homes they were unaware of the inequalities that persist in their community, being locked down meant these inequalities became visible.
There are various vectors contributing to perceptions and reality of job security, including age, gender, education level, and ethnicity. The ONS found that of the ‘813,000 payrolled jobs lost in the UK in the year up to March 2021, 54% were held by people aged under 25… gender, where PwC’s Women in Work Index 2021 found that women in the UK were around a third more likely than men to work in a sector that was completely shut down during the first national lockdown, such as accommodation, food services and recreation.’
Returning to the idea of market segmentation to decide and prioritise levelling up initiatives, these factors need to be considered alongside the general needs of any locality. For example, the requirement for access to better paying jobs needs to address jobs relevant to different age brackets, genders, and education/skill levels. Qualitative and quantitative data will be required to respond to these needs and vectors.
Businesses to play a bigger role in levelling up
PwC research finds that the public view central government as the owner of the levelling up policy, however place businesses and other bodies as the drivers of delivering change; 43% of PwC survey respondents trusting business to deliver a fair recovery.
Businesses will be responsible for providing higher paying jobs, and, together with local government are responsible for the creation of improved town centres and high streets. This means of the three main public levelling up concerns, businesses are central to achieving 2 out of the 3.
The policy should take a collaborative approach between businesses, charities, central and local governments, and communities. The trust gained by businesses during the pandemic has given them the power to drive change that is likely to be supported by the public in comparison to change driven by the less-favoured central government.
In different areas of the UK local businesses and charities are running events for under-represented groups, including events educating on sustainability. One example of this is Eden Project North, with the levelling up fund being used to transform a derelict site on Morecambe’s seafront into a visitor attraction. This will also create jobs, encourage tourism, and increase investment in the town.
The current mission of the UK government is to unite and level up the country. The Levelling Up fund has been transforming areas of the UK since 2020 and continues to do so, with £4.8 billion to be invested in high value infrastructure.
Understanding whether these initiatives have been positive to local communities, addressing specific resident needs, is unclear at this stage, and may ultimately lead to broad strategy change to address the right challenges. A market research-based approach is required to create change that is impactful to key stakeholders (residents); making them feel heard and considered when altering their day-to-day lives.
Fundamentally, it’s no different to any other business project, the stakeholders all have different priorities that need to be considered, but ultimately, they are the end users you are trying to please – so listen to them!
Active effort to engage communities, businesses, and local authorities will be the game changer in levelling up the UK.
Read more about PwC’s perspective on the policy and their suggestions to have a fair recovery here: Levelling up the UK | Strategy& UK (pwc.com)
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