The Prime Minister has today set out his ambitions for ‘levelling up’, with the stated aims of improving services and boosting community pride across the UK, seeking to create a more balanced economy. We agree with the ambition to give everyone the chance of a good job on decent pay, and are determined to make Bristol a true Living Wage City – where poverty pay is a thing of the past. Increasing access to opportunity no matter where you live is at the heart of our approach in Bristol and something we should all be working towards as a country.
Levelling up will only be successful if it targets those living in deprivation – it is vital that ‘levelling up’ policy impacts the communities and groups that need it most.
We encourage Government to focus on the challenges of poverty, social mobility, inequalities, and on the groups most affected by these challenges, that the pandemic has further entrenched. If Government takes too much of a blunt, North versus South approach, those poorer communities, often hidden and invisible across our country and in our major cities, will continue to miss out and get left even further behind.
Bristol is an example of this complexity. We have a fantastic story to tell – a £15 billion economy with sectors of high growth and opportunity. And yet we are one of the most unequal cities in England with six areas in the top 1% most deprived in the UK and 20% of our children at risk of hunger every day. Writing off deprivation in Bristol just because we live further south than, say, Birmingham, would only see more Bristolians fall further south of the poverty line.
The last thing we need is for regions or areas to be set against each other, dictated by competitive funding pots from Whitehall, which inevitably will result in the very people who stand to benefit the most missing out. In recent years, that Bingo-style approach has set hungry children in Bristol against hungry children in Plymouth, and pitted homeless people in Bristol against homeless people in Manchester: for the Prime Minister’s pledge for ‘levelling up’ to be ‘win-win’, we need fundamental change.
What is required is a national approach that recognises that our focus is addressing the big challenges of the day – including the climate and ecological emergencies – in a way which takes all communities forward and provides ample opportunities for everyone.
The Prime Minister emphasised the role of local leadership as part of ‘levelling up’ places. What local leaders need the most is predictable funding that best enables ourselves and city partners, like our local NHS, charities, and businesses, to come together around long-term plans. The UK is one of the most heavily centralised countries in Europe – that has been known for far longer than I have been Mayor, and even before Boris Johnson was one. For ‘levelling up’ to be truly effective, I would urge Government to release more funding to local places, then step back and help create the space for us to take the opportunities we know we can deliver.