Budget 2020: why “levelling up” must start at the bottom

Posted by Sam Reeve / Wednesday 11 March 2020 / Government spending
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It is almost 90 days since the prime minister delivered his post-election victory speech and gave careful thanks to those voters who “lent” their support to the now-government. 

In what was widely seen as recognition of the Conservatives’ strong performance in parts of the north and midlands, Boris Johnson also acknowledged the need for further change if his government is to capitalise on support borrowed from beyond its usual base.

This is the geographical backdrop against which the “levelling up” agenda is now widely seen, with goals of breaking down the north-south divide and nullifying regional inequalities.

 

Re-balancing regional spending 

So it was no surprise that, in today’s Budget announcement, Rishi Sunak outlined a series of measures that will start the ball rolling on this ambitious plan.

From moving civil servants in his own Treasury department to parts of the north and beyond, through to committing investment to major infrastructure projects like the Midlands Rail Hub and devolving powers to West Yorkshire, the chancellor can lay claim to having sought to strike a new equilibrium.

But will this be enough?

 

Why disadvantage matters

Perhaps the more pressing point to ponder is whether the levelling-up agenda is properly conceived in the first place.

Evidence from the past few weeks suggests that, rather than an effort to focus spending on areas outside London and the south east, attention needs to be paid to the more complex task of supporting disadvantaged children and families.

Take, for instance, the Marmot review. Published a decade after the initial report into health inequalities, the headline finding was stark: since 2010, life expectancy in England has stalled for the first time in over a century. And this, Marmot’s review says, comes in the context of a growing social gradient, with inequalities in life expectancy increasing and deprived areas falling further behind.

Yet, our own research shows that reductions in funding for services supporting vulnerable children have been concentrated in these most deprived areas, with councils in the most deprived quintile witnessing decreases almost twice the size of those in the least deprived areas.

And beneath the headlines were even more worrying findings, not least that child poverty – a key factor in childhood development – is increasing and, warns the Resolution Foundation, “risks reaching a 60-year high of 34 per cent.”

Elsewhere, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently observed the rise in in-work poverty, with over half of people in poverty now coming from a working family, including seven in ten children. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has also observed a widening of some inequalities in health outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

 

Bottom-up, rather than north-down

If the prime minister truly wants to “level up” the country, government must look beyond traditional conceptions of regional divides and recognise that children are facing life-changing disadvantages. 

We can see worrying signs that some of the progress made in recent decades is retreating – the number of children with child protection concerns is growing, young peoples’ mental health needs are increasing, and child poverty is rising.

These are the trends that cannot be ignored if the prime minister is serious about his ambitions.

With a spending review scheduled for later this year, a key part of the solution must be to develop a National Childhood Strategy, led by the prime minister himself.

Making our roads level by ridding them of potholes may please motorists, but only a concerted investment in services that support children and families amounts to the “levelling up” the country needs.

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