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30 June 2021

Boris Johnson has a long way to go on “levelling up”

An expert in health inequalities says the government is too focused on infrastructure projects instead of investment in jobs, housing, local services and education.

By Ailbhe Rea

Ministers will today unveil the UK’s new post-Brexit system of state subsidies, which the government intends to use to prop up or turbo-charge selected industries as part of its “levelling up” agenda, the Financial Times reports.

After months of wrangling over state aid during the Brexit negotiations, this is the prize in the eyes of many in government: it will be freer to allocate state support with less bureaucracy when it introduces the new legislation to replace the EU rules. There will, however, still be restrictions on subsidies, not least due to World Trade Organisation rules, and any decisions can be challenged in the courts.

It has also been reported this morning that Greater Manchester’s coronavirus death rate has been 25 per cent higher than that of the rest of England during the pandemic, leading to “jaw-dropping” falls in life expectancy, and widening social and health inequalities across the north west of England over the past year.

The two stories are connected. Michael Marmot, the highly respected authority on the social determinants of health inequalities, conducted the research for Greater Manchester, and has taken the opportunity to offer the government some advice about its levelling-up agenda.

He has suggested that the government is overly focused on infrastructure projects to alleviate regional inequalities. Instead he has proposed a “moral and practical” plan for government investment in jobs, housing, local services and education to tackle longstanding and avoidable socio-economic inequality, exacerbated, he says, by a decade of cuts and amplified by coronavirus and the impact of heavy lockdowns. He has also said that these lessons should be drawn for deprived areas across the country, not just in the north of England, and that levelling up must include the poorer parts of London, too.

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While many people complain that they don’t know what levelling up really means, including some in government, this eminent public health expert has taken the concept on board and turned it into a serious and ambitious set of proposals. His findings are a reminder that an ambition to reduce inequalities across the UK is necessary. But his recommendations are indicative of the nature and scale of change needed to make that a reality. Looking at the lacuna between his proposals and the government’s own plans, many will wonder whether that change is likely.

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