As the Government seeks to pursue its levelling up agenda as we emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, Professor Martin Jones cites the Midlands as a perfect example of the challenges this agenda will face.

'Levelling up' is the new catchphrase of the Government. Ever since Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party took power, we've seen the term 'levelling up' appear in everything from Twitter posts to in-depth articles in the Financial Times. Yet, what does it mean, and will it work?

The term itself is a good place to start, and broadly it means a clear focus on equality throughout the UK; creating new jobs and providing people with the skills needed for the future of work. However, it is not a great phrase for the Government scheme designed to bring about the reversal of the north-south divide and increased opportunity for all – particularly on a local level.

Levelling up implies that there is an existence of a 'levelled down' society – places where people don't think there will ever be economic prosperity due to the lack of opportunity. Put best perhaps by Rachel Wolf, a partner at Public First who was co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, "…people find it confusing and then, when it's explained to them, mildly irritating. They don't think they're 'levelled down', they think they're ignored."

It is in this statement that the challenges facing the whole notion of levelling up begin to emerge. The scheme looks great on paper and is designed to be easily and quickly implemented; an essential factor for a government policy that needs to show action and progress.

However, what seems to have been forgotten in flashy press releases is what is at the heart of the levelling up agenda and that is the people and their situations: a lack of access to digital services, training and re-skilling opportunities, poor access to decent infrastructure and, ultimately, poverty. Put simply, the levelling up agenda will not work if it does not take into consideration the social and economic situations of the people living in these areas that are deemed as needing help.

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The Post Covid-19 Crisis and its Impact on Poverty and Destitution in Stoke-on-Trent report published in June this year sets out this argument and shows how a large proportion of the local population was already on the brink of absolute poverty before the pandemic hit, with the COVID-19 crisis simply amplifying and worsening their situation.

Before the pandemic, Stoke-on-Trent was already the 14th most deprived district in England, and the Covid-19 crisis has only exacerbated these hardships. Child poverty rates, for example, are increasing at an alarming rate, with two out of three parliamentary constituencies in Stoke-on-Trent reporting record child poverty rates of 40% and reliance on food banks increasing by 500% between 2018 and 2021. This is something levelling up alone cannot fix with rising unemployment, inadequate benefits and low pay being the main reasons for this increase in poverty.

The report finds little evidence that levelling up will help the most disadvantaged groups. As well as improving infrastructure and connectivity, poverty reduction strategies all need to become focal points to ensure real change, and these are issues the levelling up agenda will not tackle head on.

One could argue that the levelling up agenda is trying to run before it can walk. This is fine for those with a basic level of digital skills, a job, and enough money to cover the basic living costs, but many do not even have access to these basic things. This is highlighted by data from the North Staffordshire Financial Inclusion Group which has revealed how over 90,000 people in Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme are struggling to pay their bills, keep up with loan payments, and access the Government benefits they need.

Furthermore, the digital divide has also highlighted how we need to catalyse more localised change, with many people in pockets of the UK lacking a digital device or even the internet to keep connected throughout the last year and a half.

Without digital access, the poorest in the region have struggled to get the support that is increasingly only available via online forms and platforms. There are many examples of this I could mention but one, in particular, stands out to me, which is a group of people queuing to use a single mobile phone near an internet hotspot in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent. When you start to think about how isolating this would have been during lockdown, it starts to paint a clearer picture of the poverty we are seeing and why it's so important that we tackle small, localised issues head-on before jumping ahead.

If we cannot provide a basic level of financial support or access to digital services, then no amount of new infrastructure improvements or training opportunities will help our regions. It is no wonder that many people in these areas feel as though the levelling up agenda is forgetting about them. Before we try and implement grand solutions to 'fix' all the problems we face as country, the Government should instead focus on implementing localised policies that will help alleviate poverty more immediately.

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