What do the public want from Levelling Up, and is it happening?
In our 2021 paper Should we Level Up Social Needs we conducted polling to see what the public most wanted to see improved in their area if it were to be ‘levelled up’. The top three demands from people were social issues: reduced poverty, reduced crime and reduced homelessness. These came far above other government priorities like improved high streets or transport links.
In January 2022, we conducted an analysis of all the Levelling Up funding that had been released at that point in our paper Levelling Up and social needs: An analysis of the government’s progress, to see whether funding was going towards the public’s priorities. We found that areas with the worst homelessness rates do not receive any more funding than places with less homelessness rates, and many deprived places across the UK had not received any Levelling Up funding so far.
We also found that even funding going to the right places is not going to tackle social issues: as little as 2% of total levelling up funding was going on social infrastructure despite the public’s expectation that levelling up tackle social issues. We recommended the government include more funding for social infrastructure focused on these social issues, and work in partnership with civil society to tackle needs.
Civil society partnerships to tackle inequalities
Now, we are working to show what role civil society can play to tackle the inequalities at the heart of Levelling Up. With support from Lloyds Bank Foundation, we’ve conducted research in three areas of the country: Thanet, Heywood and Nottingham, to shine a light on how civil society can act as a key partner to tackle issues like health and education which are core to regional disparities.
Our findings show that civil society can make people and places healthier and improve their education and skills – key building blocks of the local economic growth at the heart of the Levelling Up agenda. However, we also found that civil society is weakest in Levelling Up priority areas – with a third less local charitable activity than in the lowest priority areas. Worse, our data suggests the gap has grown.
A key asset for growing local economies is therefore struggling precisely where it’s most needed. We need greater support for civil society as an engine of growth if we are to truly tackle regional inequalities across the UK – such as through new targeted social investment zones, a social investment fund and better evaluation of what programmes work.