Levelling Up White Paper: Why using London as a yardstick risks children everywhere

 

In February, this year, the government released their long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper, a 300-page long publication covering everything from the history of the biggest cities in the world to twelve separate missions for the UK. By now, and a few months on from its publication, you may have read any number of analyses or opinion pieces on this unusual document.

At 4in10, London’s Child Poverty Network, amongst the myriad of missions and metrics, there were two key issues stand out as being of great concern:

  • Child poverty in London is completely absent from the paper (the phrase ‘child poverty’ does not appear at all).
  • London is used a yardstick for success for other regions, despite having the highest levels of inequality and poverty. The White Paper explicitly intends to replicate London’s economic model in other regions despite these facts. This risks the exacerbation of child poverty not just in London but in other areas identified as needing to be ‘Levelled Up’ (Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Newcastle, the Humber etc).

Child Poverty in London and Levelling Up

Although London is discussed in some sections of the Levelling Up White Paper, child poverty levels are not referenced. This is despite four in ten children in London currently living in poverty and nine of the ten local authorities with the highest levels of child poverty being located in London. If children in the capital, or elsewhere in the UK, are going hungry due to poverty – and the White Paper fails to mention – let alone address this – the phrase ‘Levelling-Up’ rings hollow. The White Paper does discuss the deprivation and lack of investment into many regions across the UK. However, it is possible for two truths to be present at once:

  • Vast areas of the UK have experienced chronic underinvestment.
  • London’s children are experiencing worsening poverty levels and increasingly deep levels of poverty.

It is true that some of London’s children do experience some advantages (but these tend to be limited to social mobility measures); a child on free school meals in London is twice as likely to attend university compared to those in the north of England. In London’s most deprived areas, nearly 90 per cent of secondary schools are either good or outstanding, compared with less than 50 per cent in deprived areas of the north. Transport spend per head has been higher in London for a decade (although this doesn’t always benefit poorer Londoners in outer boroughs); London transport spending per head was £864, compared with £379 in the north-west of England between 2009-2020. All of these facts are little compensation to the 12 children in a classroom of 30 who live in poverty in London. If one of the children in an East London classroom ends up going to Oxbridge, or gets a job at a top law firm, that is little compensation to the 11 others who still live in poverty. Similarly, the ability to get from Hackney (East London) to Thornton Heath (South West London), for as little as £1.65, means very little when the parent to the child pays (on average) £1,650 on rent per month in Hackney.

At 4in10, believe the Levelling Up agenda can, and should, address both regional underinvestment and child poverty rates in all areas of the country, including London.  We should not pit children in one area against another (as the White Paper states itself; page xiv)– any child growing up in poverty in the United Kingdom is an avoidable tragedy.

There is a real risk that the high levels of poverty and child poverty, experienced in London and elsewhere, will be overlooked by national policy makers in light of the White Paper.

Replicating London’s Private Sector Productivity Model

“Typically, differences within UK regions or cities are larger than differences between regions on most performance metrics” (Levelling Up White Paper 2022: p27)

A significant part of the reason child poverty is overlooked by the Levelling Up White Paper is due to the fact the main objective of ‘Levelling Up’ is to reproduce the London’s levels of productivity in other regions of the UK, through processes of agglomeration. It is consistently implied, in the White Paper, that living standards will increase once the rest of the UK’s long standing productivity problems are resolved. In London, both as a whole unit and at local authority levels, productivity metrics are higher than other regions. Across the measures selected by the government as indicative of a productive area, Gross Value Added per hour, median gross weekly pay, and proportion of population with a Level 3+ qualification – London scores highly in comparison to other regions. This leaves London’s true picture of poverty somewhat obscured.

Using Gross Value Added (GVA), the favoured productivity measurement of the government, Tower Hamlets is the third most productive region in the country (ONS 2021). Therefore, Tower Hamlets has ‘Levelled Up’, right?

If you were to walk down in a street in Tower Hamlets, in the shadow of Canary Wharf, one in two families (55.8% – End Child Poverty Coalition: 2021) would be living in poverty; if you asked them how high GVA levels or the private sector productivity of the financial district has benefited them, they would struggle to give you an answer.

This gets to the heart of why we at 4in10 are alarmed that this model is being sought to be replicated elsewhere. Living standards, such as child poverty, in Tower Hamlets for example, would not be improved by a further increase in shiny new private sector buildings in the borough.

As a network organisation whose members have seen the impact of child poverty rising over the last decade, the use of London as a yardstick for success or model to be copied is highly concerning. It is not just concerning for children in London, but also for children in places like Leeds, Rotherham, and Middlesbrough, who are the primary focus of ‘Levelling Up’ narratives. Whilst ‘Levelling Up’ certainly means different things to different people, but we would all agree that an area has not levelled up whilst still having extremely high levels of child poverty.

The Equality Trust and New Economics Foundation have already flagged that the Levelling Up White Paper must focus on people, not just places. Research from the NPC (2022) shows that only 2% of the total levelling up funding is going on supporting social infrastructure so far, despite the public’s expectation that will Levelling Up tackle social issues. The public consider the most important aspects to an area being levelled up to be reduced homelessness (36%) and reduced poverty (36%).

However, the problems with the White Paper and child poverty levels in London run even deeper when contextualised against continuous unhelpful narratives:

How Can We Change The Narrative That London Doesn’t Need To Be Levelled Up?

After waiting a few months to see if these concerns would be addressed by policy makers, it is clear that we need an alternative narrative or frame to tell the true story of child poverty in London. Despite years of (sky) high child poverty rates in London, Westminster are simply not listening. No single statistic will provide a silver bullet to this problem, as:

 

  • People outside of London either aren’t aware of the scale of child poverty in London, or they simply don’t believe the scale of inequality and poverty in London when presented with evidence.
  • There is a sense of unfairness/grievance felt towards London from some parts of the UK; typically providing London with any public funding is unpopular.
  • London is no longer a major political priority for either the national Conservative or national Labour parties

In light of these factors, we need urgently to find an alternative way to make the case for the 700,000 children living in poverty in the capital.

We want to work alongside our members, and anyone who shares our concerns about child poverty in London to help us tell the true story of its impact and challenge the prevailing narratives in the White Paper that prevent us from tackling it.

 

Do you, or your organisation, want to get involved in making the case for levelling up London?

Attend our next Coffee Morning:

Levelling Up London?

9th June 2022 – 10:00-11:30

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/338029173357