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Levelling Up: Making the case for London

Author: Manny Hothi, Chief Executive, Trust for London

Making the case for London, Manny - edit .png

How worried should we be that the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda will have a negative effect on Londoners living in poverty? Our Chief Executive Manny Hothi considers this as he makes the case for why we must ensure low-income Londoners do not lose out in an era of levelling up this London Challenge Poverty Week 2021 (11-17 October).

Levelling up has yet to progress beyond a slogan. It has clearly gained some traction with the public, but 42% of people still do not know what it means. In response, the Prime Minster has tasked some political big-hitters to put some meat on the bones. More details emerged during last week’s Conservative Party Conference, including Conservative MP, Neil O’Brien, tweeting that levelling up is about empowering communities, boosting living standards, improving public services, and restoring local pride.

This is perhaps the clearest framework we have been given on what the agenda will look like, but it is still incredibly broad. Without stronger definition and a clearer idea of what success is, almost every argument being thrown at the government will be done through the language of levelling up, especially now it is being billed as ‘levelling up the whole country’.

This lack of definition gives it a strong Big Society vibe. That endeavour was perceived as vague, and despite various attempts to revive it, shapeshifted its way into the ether. It also suffered from the economic context of the time. The Big Society was never going to happen whilst austerity was shrinking the state. Levelling up faces the same challenge.

On the other hand, the current government has a strong electoral incentive to deliver on the levelling up agenda, something it didn’t have with the Big Society. I think this means that the language is here to stay and, given how well anti-London rhetoric cuts-through to the public consciousness, London will continue to get bashed.

Few people would argue against greater investment in any area of the country that needs it, but if this results in spending being diverted from London, the city could be levelled-down. This is not a far-fetched scenario, with OnLondon cataloguing ways it has already happened through their Levelling Down Monitor.

The Monitor catalogues multiple ways in which the city has lost out, including funds aimed at developing skills, access to place-based funds, education funding, and of course transport spending. Looking at this list, it is hard not to conclude that low-income Londoners will be levelling up’s collateral damage.

This sustained rhetorical shift against London, combined with actual anti-London policy decisions, distracts from one of the truly shocking things about our capital - that it has the highest rate of poverty of any region in the country. This is something that is rarely acknowledged by politicians outside of London, and certainly not part of the public consciousness. The widespread inequality that exists within London is also rarely acknowledged in debates that pit the wealth of regions against each other.

Highlighting London’s stark levels of poverty and inequality is a sobering and powerful response to the levelling-up rhetoric. But with the ‘long gilded and favoured London’ narrative widely accepted as the single truth, drowning out the contrary facts, will anyone listen?

I think it sensible to assume that, with much of Westminster’s gaze set to voters beyond the M25, it will be hard to get a hearing. Despite this, here are four things that we think can be done to make the case for low-income Londoners.

Thankfully, there are several areas where tackling poverty in London and the rest of the country go hand-in-hand. The most obvious is our system of social security. The past few months have seen a great coalition of organisations and politicians, including many prominent Conservatives, campaign valiantly but unsuccessfully for the retention of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit. London is one of the regions hit hardest by the cut, but the plight of our city need not be differentiated from that of low-income people across the country.

Proportion of Londoners aged 16-64 receiving out-of-work benefits by benefit type (2013 - 2021 (Q1))

We should also look to actors beyond central and regional government. One of the hardest things to stomach about poverty in this country is that so many of those below the breadline are working – one in five working Londoners is living in poverty.

The London Living Wage remains one of the best immediate tools that civil society has at its disposal. Getting all employers on board with paying the living wage will be a great step, but we also know the world of business is willing to do more – and we need to find ways to translate this into action.

Employment status of all adults aged 16+ in poverty (2011/12 - 2019/20)

We need a sustained effort to make London’s housing crisis a national issue. In his new role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove has already talked about the need to improve the supply and condition of social housing. As a starting point, national housing bodies, London’s institutions and communities need to work collectively to ensure that London’s needs, which are far greater than any other part of the country, are front and centre.

Proportions of people in poverty before and after housing costs (2019/20)

We know from research by the Centre for London that, when those outside of London are asked what words they would use to describe London, many more will say ‘expensive’ and ‘crowded’ than ‘elitist’ and ‘rich’.

This makes it even more infuriating that the narrative on London focuses so much more on the city’s privilege. But it also offers some building blocks for shifting public opinion. It is not a great leap to convince people that, if London is ‘expensive’ and ‘crowded’, it is also a very difficult place for so many low-income people to live.

Even if we think that very few are listening right now, we must keep amplifying the reality of life for millions of Londoners, combining high-quality data with stories told through their own words.

11 October 2021