Edge of rural town

The gap in employment rates between the best- and worst-performing areas is at its widest since 2005, says Christine Farquharson.

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. There are big gaps between regions on pay, employment, living standards and more. Governments have been trying to close these gaps for at least a hundred years. 

Most recently Boris Johnson put ‘levelling up’ at the centre of the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto. Three years later, his government set out 12 ambitious “missions” for the UK to meet by 2030. These covered employment, education, skills, transport, investment and more. 

Progress since then has been very slow – and, in many areas, the UK as a whole is moving in reverse. 

Take education. In 2019, only 65% of 11-year-olds were meeting expectations in reading, writing and maths. The education ‘mission’ is for that to rise to 90% by 2030. That is a worthwhile goal. But since then the share of pupils meeting this benchmark has actually fallen, to 60%. And the gaps between areas are getting even wider: all of the top 10 best-performing local authorities are in London. 

There is a similar picture in many other areas, too: the gap between the most- and least-happy areas is the widest since at least 2011. The gap in employment rates between the best- and worst-performing areas is at its widest since 2005. Adult education has fallen fastest in the areas that had the lowest skills to start with.

Of course, big events like the pandemic and the cost of living crisis have made it harder to make progress on levelling up. But if we want to really move the dial on these big goals, we will need to find a way to make more progress than we have so far. 

Outside a few bright spots – like better broadband coverage in more rural parts of the country – achieving “levelling up” looks further away now than it did in 2019. The good news is that there has been a lot of careful work to understand these gaps between areas and how to close them. So the next government – whoever wins on Thursday – will have a big head start.

It is now time to step up. If we don’t then we could still be talking about levelling up in a hundred years’ time.