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The Levelling Up Commission 2023

Curia’s Levelling Up Commission is relaunching for 2023, with a new focus to turn the ambitions of the levelling up agenda from policy into practice.

Levelling Up our Public Services

If the Levelling Up agenda is to mean much in the long run, it will have to be about more than just investing in infrastructure projects across the UK. Indeed, it will require a much more serious approach to the design and delivery of public services, and how inequalities can both be baked into public services, but also ameliorated by them.

The existing pressures on local authorities and others to deliver public services in difficult circumstances have only been compounded by high levels of inflation (making the cost of delivery even higher) and the squeeze on public finances at the national level meaning that additional funding will be very unlikely, with spending cuts the probable outcome.

Levelling up as a concept is not dead. There remain real and substantive regional inequalities which must be tackled as a matter of public priority, even with the current squeeze on the public purse. Inequalities in healthcare, housing, education and justice mark a real and pressing issue that all levels of government have an obligation to address.

Simply put, the levelling up agenda requires fresh thinking. It must be people  focused rather than project centric and seeks to drive down the inequalities that have dogged public services for too long.

In 2011, the public sector equality duty came into force, requiring all public authorities and providers of statutory services to, among other things, advance equality of opportunity between those who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not share it. However, in 2022, it remains the case that minority groups, whether looked at by ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, or disability often face unequal access to public services and unequal outcomes. Similarly, there is a significant postcode lottery regarding the geographical availability of good public services, that place certain regions (often those with lower income levels) at a further disadvantage.

This was highlighted during the pandemic; however, it is a problem that has existed long before then and without concerted efforts will continue to persist. The impact of this is clear. When minority groups do not have equal access to healthcare, suitable housing and good education, they face significantly worse life chances. These factors contribute to making people more likely to face ill-health, poor housing/homelessness and shorter life expectancies than counterparts with better access to these services. Moreover, it costs the public purse down the line. For instance, significant NHS savings could be realised from the public health benefits of people presenting earlier to services. Social care and the NHS could benefit from homes without damp issues.

What will the Commission do?

To successfully close the gap of inequalities in public service provision, there is a need to engage all levels of the system as services are commissioned, designed, and delivered. Guidance, policies and implementation plans require careful consideration and most importantly, co-production involving all levels of the system to ensure that they are both effective, and feasible at the local level.

While reducing inequalities across the UK is the stated aim of the Government’s levelling up agenda, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill makes no mention of the word ‘inequality’. While it is a policy programme that pledges to reduce geographical inequality, it is very light on the detail of how it will do so.

Likewise, public services, though they often indicate a need to reduce inequality of access and service, typically offer very little detail as to how this will be done. While the 2012 Health and Social Care Act outlines the duties of the Secretary of State, Clinical Commissioning Groups, regulators, NHS trusts and more to reduce inequalities in access and quality of care, there is very little in terms of how this will be rolled out in practice.

Clearly, developing approaches to combat these problems should not be done to and for local authorities, regional government and service providers (public, private and third sector alike), but rather with and by them. The Commission will take the conversation to them. The Commission has four simple aims:

  1. Support and develop recommendations to reduce inequalities in public service provision alongside accompanying implementation plans for all levels of the system
  2. Share examples of best practice from the UK across different service provision areas
  3. Conduct socio-economic research to show impact of unequal public service provision
  4. Engage with national, regional and local government, service providers, service users to build consensus on recommendations

The Commission will set out a series of recommendations to consider how regional inequalities can be reduced from the perspective of public services in four key areas:

  1. Health and Social Care
  2. Housing and Homelessness
  3. Education, Skills and Training
  4. Crime, Justice and Rehabilitation

If you have any questions about the Commission, or want to get involved – email Policy and Research Analyst Hal Arnold-Forster at hal.arnoldforster@chamberuk.com.

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