The increased salience of what the economist Sir Paul Collier calls “spatial inequality” is recognised on both the right and left of politics. Where people are affects their life chances just as education and other factors do. Huge disparities in property values have made it harder, often impossible, to move. So it is good news that ministers are taking seriously the recommendations of a report by one of their backbenchers, Danny Kruger. It contains constructive suggestions about how they should go about fulfilling their promise to “level up” the UK – and bottle the spirit of mutual aid.
The topic is timely. Communities already struggling against the enormously harmful effects of austerity, and an increasingly insecure labour market, have been badly hit by the pandemic. More rough times lie ahead. Putting aside for now the government’s responsibility for this dire situation (through inept handling of Covid-19 and Brexit, as well as cuts), it is a relief that they are on the lookout for ideas to address it.
Mr Kruger recognises that rightwing parties must find ways to sponsor generous actions as well as self-interested ones. There are moral reasons for this as well as the political one that, if they don’t, they risk being seen as “nasty” (as Theresa May so memorably put it). A huge number of people face severe hardship because they lack work, good health, secure housing, sufficient income or sustaining relationships. Cultural divisions and polarisation, blamed by many on social media as well as economic factors, are placing additional strain on the bonds on which we all rely.
Recognition of the severity of cuts inflicted on local services by previous Conservative-led governments is a necessary place to start. Between 2010 and 2020 spending on youth services reduced by 70%, while David Cameron’s “big society” failed to deliver on a pledge to revivify civil society in exchange for hacking away at the state. In the case of probation, it provided cover for a disastrous exercise in outsourcing. Libraries are among local institutions singled out by Mr Kruger for a bigger role and better funding.
Money isn’t the only issue. It is true that British public services suffer from centralisation and silos. Schemes to promote volunteering, perhaps even a form of national civil service for young adults, should be taken seriously. An ageing population, combined with the vast challenges of global heating and biodiversity loss, mean that many more of us will need to become active in care and conservation. Charities and social enterprises have a vital part to play. The proposal for a new bank holiday is pleasant too.
Mr Kruger is on slippier ground when he argues for an enhanced role for churches. While secular liberals may indeed “wish their theology to be universal”, this is hardly the same as a formal commitment to evangelism. It is not helpful to suggest that “faith phobia” is the reason many people would prefer care homes and nurseries to be run by councils. But stronger local government is not where this report’s heart is. While it mentions democratic innovation, Mr Kruger seems hardly more willing than the rest of his party to contemplate a reshaping of the British state that would involve granting more autonomy to politicians outside Westminster. Levelling up, it appears, will come from the top if it comes at all.