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Levelling up strategy ‘favours prosperous rural areas over deprived communities’

The House of Lords’ public services committee has warned that deprived communities will be ‘short-changed’ and inequality will grow if money for the NHS, schools and councils is not protected and ‘levelling up’ plans are not better targeted.

The committee sent a position paper on levelling up and public service to the prime minister ahead of the forthcoming government white paper on the levelling up strategy.

During the committee’s inquiry, witnesses accused ministers of favouring prosperous rural areas with funds ahead of deprived communities. It concluded that, without full transparency and political accountability, local areas will continue to question why they have missed out on levelling up funding while others have benefited.

The inquiry found that the government’s strategy ‘does not recognise high levels of deprivation in many parts of the country including parts of London.’

It also warned that if levelling up investment neglects social infrastructure, such as community centres and childcare, and public services it will not help the most deprived areas.

It called for ministers to use the promised ‘levelling up’ white paper to refocus their strategy to improve health, employment and skills and better prepare children for school if it wants more jobs, productivity and pay in deprived communities.

The committee is calling on the government to work with local service providers and users to set targets to improve, for example, life expectancy, employment, literacy and numeracy of children starting school and the number of entrants to higher education.

Baroness Armstrong, committee chair, said: ‘Not only places but the people who live in them should be at the heart of ‘levelling up’.

‘Social infrastructure and support provided by public services is at least as critical to communities as investment in roads and bridges.

‘Lack of funding for preventative health services, vocational education and for better literacy and numeracy among disadvantaged children has undermined the resilience of our poorest communities and further entrenched inequality.

‘Successfully ‘levelling up’ will require a more holistic approach. A white paper, which should be published urgently, is welcome but it’s unclear exactly what the government wants to level up, how much its strategy will cost, how long it will take and how it plans to achieve its goals.

‘The strategy will require a major change of direction if it is to achieve its admirable ambition for people in ‘left-behind’ areas to have the same opportunities as elsewhere in the country.’

man sitting at the shed beside the street

Responding to the report, the Health Foundation said that improving health across the country should be a key measure of success for the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Health Foundation, said the next step must be to set out a coherent strategy to reduce avoidable and costly ill health, including mental health.

‘Today’s report is right to highlight that improving health across the country should be a key measure of success for the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

‘With the focus so far on boosting infrastructure and skills, a healthy population is also essential for economic recovery and prosperity.

‘It is good the government acknowledges the need to address inequalities in its ambition to ‘level up’. The next step must be to set out a coherent strategy to achieve this, building on the initial policies and funding announced yesterday.

‘Such a strategy must include a clear path to reducing avoidable and costly ill health – including mental health – assessed against measurable goals and metrics.

‘Without that, avoidable ill health will be a drag on future prosperity. The strategy for levelling up must be cross-government owned, with both the Cabinet Office and Number 10 taking overall responsibility.

‘It should tackle the most important factors that influence our health, including poverty, unemployment, low quality work, inadequate early years support, and housing, targeting areas of the country where healthy life expectancy has been deteriorating.

‘It is time to get much more serious about health. If not now after a pandemic, when? ‘Local government has a central role to play in addressing these ‘wider determinants’ of health, and it will be important to link a strategy for levelling up with any new plans to develop devolution within England.

‘The report rightly highlights our call to reverse cuts to local authorities’ public health grant, which has been reduced by a quarter since 2014/15. The underfunding of public health services has undermined the resilience of our poorest communities and further entrenched geographical inequalities.’

A government spokesperson said: ‘We’re supporting all areas of the country to level up by providing billions of pounds of new funding that will have a real impact on people’s daily lives and improve their services, from health and social care to education.

‘We will publish a Levelling Up White Paper later this year, setting out bold new policy interventions to help improve livelihoods, spread opportunity and drive economic growth – all as part of our efforts to build back better from the pandemic.’

Photo Credit – Jonathan Rados

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