The UK government’s levelling up agenda should focus on improving town centres and the quality of low-skilled jobs, a think tank has suggested.
Research by Resolution Foundation revealed that as well as accessing jobs, the quality of work was a major concern, with participants saying that low-skilled work often meant casual employment, low pay and a lack of training or progression.
The prevalence of low-quality work in smaller towns — 30% of jobs in Scarborough are elementary or care roles, compared to 17% in Leeds — helps to explain why over a third of 18-year-olds from small towns or villages leave their home area. This is more than twice the rate of those living in large cities.
Lindsay Judge, research director at the Resolution Foundation, said: “There is as much support for ‘levelling up’ across Britain as there is confusion about what it actually means.
“Crucially, closing economic gaps between places means different things to different areas — from making it affordable to live in major cities, practical to commute into them from nearby towns, and possible to enjoy decent, well-paid work irrespective of where you live.
“Successfully closing economic gaps between places is the right thing to, but it will involve tough trade-offs over where to prioritise investment, and where decisions are ultimately made.
“The good news is that people understand these trade-offs far more than politicians give them credit for, so there is no excuse not to face up to these challenges and give place far more prominence in a new economic strategy for Britain.”
The research found that for people living outside major cities good connectivity was crucial to maximise the spill-over economic gains they might experience from additional investment in places like Manchester and Leeds.
This view that UK’s major cities outside London are poorly served by public transport, and that the car is still king when it comes to commuting, particularly in smaller towns, was widely shared.
The research also showed that rather than expect their local area to become a new economic hub, participants said that large-scale economic development — and the diverse range of jobs and higher pay that it leads to — would naturally cluster around large cities.
For people living in Leeds, the desire for more investment to bring new opportunities was mixed with concern that it could also drive greater inequality and higher housing costs. Participants noted that rents were already surging, and that new builds in the city did not seem to match local need.
Alex Beer, welfare programme head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “People's pride in and connection with their local area is evident from this research. However, it is also clear that people’s hopes for the future of their areas will not be met without meaningful investment to improve town centres, better transport links and more, quality low-skilled jobs.
“Efforts to reduce geographical disparities should also be supported by action to address other persistent inequalities in the UK, including those related to age, gender and ethnicity. People everywhere should have a fair opportunity for a healthy life and good access to education, public services and employment opportunities.”
Levelling up is based on the idea that left-behind communities across the UK should get a chance to catch up.
The government recently set out its 12 "missions" for the policy — ranging from improving education to faster broadband capability to local transport — with a deadline for delivery in 2030.
For the first round of the so-called Levelling Up Fund, £1.7bn has been allocated to towns and cities across the UK.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government was renamed the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in 2021.