photo: Bubble from Hefin Owen Flickr photostream

In order to assess the current policy approach to addressing inequalities, it is necessary to think critically about the ‘levelling up’ policy context in the UK. To do this, we need to think about changes to dominant ways in which policymakers talk about prevailing social inequalities to understand better how place-based models of regional disadvantage have come to dominate UK policy discussions about social inequalities.

So when did this change start? We take as a point of departure the 2010 election of David Cameron. A high-profile policy programme of Cameron’s initial time in office was the ‘Big Society’, intended to reinvigorate political participation through a fundamental realignment of civil society.

This policy programme was predicated on creating an alternative to big government through the development of a

“the big society: a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic, and corporate responsibility; a society where people come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities; a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control” (Cabinet Office, 2010, p.37).

This big society agenda takes traditional ideas around voluntarism and develops them as a conservative alternative to what the right characterised as leftist ‘big state’ models, based upon a large public sector. Many conservatives see unpaid voluntarism as a more acceptable alternative to this big state model, where responsibilised individual volunteers actively provide what would previously have been categorised as statutory provision. For example, there is a well-established tradition of Conservative volunteering in the National Health Service (NHS). This week’s report from the King’s Fund shows that the UK was found to be behind similar countries in terms of avoidable mortality and life expectancy. It would appear that the Conservative commitment to low levels of public service funding is having a determinantal effect on all our health.

Whereas New Labour had previously drawn from notions of community and participation broadly understood, the Big Society policy programme redefined community as very much predicated on notions of localism which worked to push responsibility away from central government and onto regional government – it was at this point that there was much talk of enabler councils rather than provider councils.

The upshot of this policy context is that the idea of participation in UK civil society was fundamentally changed, whereby participation was re-characterised as a form of voluntary action. The Big Society agenda became something of a ‘unicorn’ policy in that it was often discussed. However, it was seldom evidenced, and thus the prevailing ethos around developing new participation models continued and was explicitly revisited in a 2018 government-produced Civil Society Strategy.

Figure 1 Source: Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone (p.8).

The strategy outlines five constituent parts of civil society. These relate to ‘people’, the ‘social sector’, the ‘public sector’ (very much at the centre), the ‘private sector’ and ‘place’. It appears that the public sector retains a role as paymaster, being identified as responsible for commissioning and funding decisions (again functioning as an enabler instead of a provider). Notably, within the Civil Society Strategy, there is no identifiable role for the national government in the sense of ‘big government’.

 Whilst this is all interesting, the specific aspect we want to draw attention to is the emphasis on notions of place. This functions to break the link between disadvantage and inequality, or rather it functions to predicate inequality and disadvantage to questions of geographical place rather than structural social factors such as poverty, gender, or race/ethnicity. It characterises a shift from understanding inequality as a set of material social practices to understanding inequality as a series of unfortunate geographical events. This series of unfortunate geographical events background the role of social structures that actively target and identify specific groups. Instead, the emphasis is placed (quite literally) on the need to replace material inequality with spatial inequality, whereby policy goals become about improving place rather than reducing inequality. In this context, we see the emergence of ideas around ‘levelling up’.

Levelling up

In the UK policy context, levelling up preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a central feature of Boris Johnson’s time as UK Prime Minister and featured in his first speech as PM in July 2019. Broadly defined, it is a logic of redistribution retrofitted onto a model predicated upon geographical inequality. In the foreword to the 2022 government policy document on levelling up, Johnson states the UK is;

a country in which the place of your birth is one of the clearest determining factors in how you’ll get on, what opportunities will be open to you, even the number of years for which you can expect to live…the challenges we face have been embedded over generations and cannot be dug out overnight. (HM Government, 2022, p. viii, cf. Telford and Wistow, 2022)

This emphasis on place is central to the work that practices of levelling up are doing (and crucially pointing to the work that these practices are not doing). By focusing on place, the policy is not focussing on other sources of inequality. It is creating a dominant frame where inequality is inextricably linked to questions of places and communities that have been ‘left behind’. These ‘left-behind’ places are then compared and contrasted with other places that are much more vibrant and vital (typically urban centres, for example, Manchester or Leeds, or in the UK context, the whole of London and the South East of England). It works actively to background the inequalities and disadvantages inherent in contemporary social, political, cultural and economic contexts. The unit of analysis becomes one of disadvantaged spaces, and the solution is more and better investment to make those disadvantaged spaces more like their nearby (and better) ‘advantaged’ spaces.

The atomised placed-based redistribution model does not require us to consider how we might ensure parity of opportunity across the whole range of marginalised and excluded community actors. For example, a spatial logic of redistribution does not need to stipulate how it might address the gender pay gap. Consequently, the nascent atomism of spatial logics of redistribution creates barriers to developing meaningful alliances across different groups. At the point of principle, it is hard to be against levelling up because, so the narrative goes, to be against levelling up is to be against making the local situation better for local people (in this sense Levelling Up can also be regarded as a form of nascent nativist populism). It also obviates any counter-narrative that might seek to posit alternative strategies for addressing broader enduring systems of inequality.

The principle of redistribution means interventions which result in people who previously had less, post-intervention, now having more, but this also means that people who previously had more will now have less. Does this hold in a model where inequality is based on place-based inequalities rather than social, political, cultural or economic inequalities? A spatial logic of redistribution can be seen to function to background wider equivalences between marginalised groups by atomising inequality into a dominant place-based model of explication.

The solution to inequalities becomes a place-based lottery with winners and losers based on geography, when an alternative solution might be the systematic redistribution of income based on progressive taxation models (for example).This characterisation does much political work for the Conservative Party government. Most notably, it gives them the ability and opportunity to claim they are doing something about inequality. This emphasis on place also facilitates links and appeals to populist nativist appeals to nationalism and the vilification of prosperous ‘liberal metropolitan elites’.

So levelling up says that it is communities (spatially defined) which require intervention (empowerment and investment) at the local level. Levelling up practices function to sediment inequalities and disadvantages produced by underinvestment and austerity politics by constructing a narrative that rearticulates them in terms of place, thus channelling demands into the existing system to prevent their articulation into a broader challenge against dominant forms of economic development and political power.

About the co-author: Dr Konstantinos (Kostis) Roussos is a Lecturer at the School of Health and Social Care (Social Work and Social Justice Division), and founding member of the Centre for Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the Department of Government at the University of Essex. His current research explores discourses and practices in grassroots welfare provisioning and community developmen