Detail from Francisco Goya’s “The Forge”

This essay, on the government’s levelling up proposals, was my Observer column this week. It was published in the Observer, 11 July 2021, under the headline “Levelling up should take many forms. And don’t forget London’s poorest need it too”.

Levelling up is hard to do. Well, in one sense it is. Providing new opportunities for people and places that most need but have least access to them requires strategic vision and political will. Boris Johnson’s recent word salad of a speech, supposedly the latest launch of the government’s levelling-up programme, exposed only that it possesses neither.

In a more basic sense, though, what needs to be done is not difficult to grasp. Just as doctors have drummed into them “First, do no harm”, so the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for policymakers attempting to level up might be “First, do not aggravate inequality”. Yet the government has spawned policy after policy that does just that.

Take last week. First, ministers raised the possibility of a rise in national insurance contributions (NICs) as a means of paying for improvements in social care. (The government subsequently hinted that the same pot of money could be used to pay for nurses’ 3% wage rise, creating more confusion.)

Politically, increasing NICs might be a smart move, the best way to hide a tax rise. In terms of levelling up, however, it would be a retrograde step because, as the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, it “asks younger and lower-paid workers to contribute more than older and wealthier people, compared to a fairer rise in income tax”.

Also last week, the government published its response to the consultation on “proposals to reduce ill-health related job loss”. In 2019, the government promised to attend to one of the most absurd anomalies of the benefits system: two million people earning less than £120 a week are not eligible for statutory sick pay. Those who most need sick pay are barred from receiving it – because they are too poor. Two years ago, the government proposed “extending protection to those earning less than the Lower Earnings Limit”. Of those who took part in the consultation, three-quarters agreed this was essential. The government, however, seems to have changed its mind and quietly shelved the plan.

These are not quirks of the system. They are features of an approach that has consistently betrayed the poorest. The problem with sick pay is not just that it is denied to the lowest paid, but that even those who are eligible receive a risible amount. The average mandatory paid sick pay among OECD countries stands at about 70% of an employee’s wage; in Britain, it is about 10%. Even in the midst of a pandemic, in which low-paid “essential workers” are most likely to have to self-isolate, the chancellor has obstinately refused to budge. Similarly, the decision not to make permanent the £20 Covid uplift in universal credit will have a devastating impact on the poorest. Levelling up? More like hammering down.

There is far more to levelling up, of course, than alleviating poverty and keeping inequality in check. But that surely must be the minimum. The inability of the government to meet even such a low threshold exposes the void behind the rhetoric.

If the government has failed to support individuals in need, it has equally failed to protect and develop the social infrastructure essential to any levelling-up policy. People don’t live as isolated individuals, but in communities and collectives. For these to flourish, we need the places and spaces, the organisations and institutions, which allow people to meet, organise and build commonalities.

Many such organisations have to be created through our own efforts without any input or interference from the state – trade unions, for instance, or solidarity groups. Nevertheless, much social infrastructure, from libraries to youth clubs, from art galleries to public parks, needs government funding and resources.

There is considerable evidence that stronger social infrastructure helps foster collective action and nurtures solidarity, such as the creation of mutual aid groups. Yet it is an issue largely ignored by policymakers. According to one estimate, of the £172bn so far allocated to levelling up, just £9bn has been set aside for social infrastructure projects. It is not that improving physical infrastructure – from transport to housing – is not vital. It is, rather, that the significance of libraries, pubs and parks to people’s lives is too often ignored at the top.

Nor is the problem simply that public policy ignores the significance of social infrastructure. It is also that these are the very places and spaces that have been most damaged by a decade of austerity.

Between 2010 and 2019, 760 youth clubs closed in England and Wales, as local authority expenditure on youth services dropped by 70%. Almost two-thirds of smaller youth clubs still open face the risk of closure. Libraries are what Benjamin Zephaniah has called “universities of the streets”, allowing reading, and all the treasures that come with it, to be not just a private pleasure but a social possibility. Yet in the decade leading up to the pandemic, almost 800 public libraries closed because of funding cuts; last year, public funding for libraries fell by another £20m.

Levelling up is often seen as a means of tackling the “geography of discontent”, the cynicism and disillusionment found in the so-called “places that don’t matter”, mainly English towns beyond the large conurbations that feel abandoned by mainstream institutions. This has been a particular focus for this government. There is some merit to such an approach, for these are often places that have been forgotten in recent decades. Areas where the social fabric has eroded the most are, unsurprisingly, also often the areas with highest levels of pessimism and alienation.

Inequality, though, does not cleave as neatly as this. Two London boroughs (Barking & Dagenham and Hackney) rank within the 10 most deprived authorities in England and another three (Islington, Newham and Tower Hamlets) within the top 32. The capital also has the highest child poverty rate of any English region. The north/south or city/town divides are not as straightforward as sometimes claimed.

Levelling up requires a nuanced eye that can see beyond simplistic divisions. It also requires a determination to tackle the real problems as opposed to playing to the political gallery. Currently, we have neither. Government policy ignores individuals facing poverty or hunger and the burden of inequality crushing them. It also ignores the community, eroding the social fabric necessary for us to live as more than simply a collection of individuals. Enough of the word salads, we need policy with real meat.

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