Levelling up has proved hard to define, but in broad terms it is about reducing inequalities between areas through increasing productivity and improving living standards.
It is also about restoring a sense of community and local pride. It might also mean addressing inequalities on other dimensions, such as the gendered imbalances observed in the roles and experiences of men and women. A number of recent research projects funded by the Nuffield Foundation have revealed interesting insights on these themes.
First, there are big regional differences in employment and wages across the UK. A report we funded, Spatial disparities across labour markets, published in February and part of the ongoing Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) Deaton Review of Inequalities, shows that average wages in London in 2019 were £20 an hour compared to £13 in Scarborough.
Second, much of this difference is due to the concentration of high-skilled workers in a few parts of the country, something that individual employers can do little about. But good work should be available wherever people live and can contribute to levelling up across many dimensions.
For example, research by Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, Working parents, flexibility and job quality: what are the trade-offs? published in November 2021, highlights the value that parents place on job quality. Flexible working, job security and support from managers are all important factors for working parents
There is evidence that mothers in particular sometimes sacrifice important elements of job quality, such as pay and progression, to secure others, particularly flexibility. This means many get stuck in flexible roles with little opportunity to level up.
In this context, barriers to good work include gendered assumptions that devalue part-time employment and limit training and progression opportunities, and managers with poor knowledge of flexible-working arrangements.
Third, employers can also play a role in enabling staff to contribute to their communities. A further report we funded Beyond Us and Them: Societal Cohesion in Britain Through Eighteen Months of COVID-19, published in November 2021, but undertaken during the first year of the pandemic, reveals that the benefits of volunteering are even greater than we might have anticipated.
The project found that volunteering had significant personal and community-level benefits, including deeper, more sustainable psychological resilience in a time of crisis.
The research also shows that volunteering can contribute to more resilient local places, as volunteers reported higher levels of trust in local and national government, a greater sense of neighbourliness, and more optimism for the future than non-volunteers.
Taken together, these results point to the potential difference that employer reward and CSR strategies can make to people’s lives and the wellbeing of the communities in which they are based.
While it is undoubtedly the case that some levelling up will require central government investment and infrastructure, smaller scale changes can also make an important difference.
Alex Beer is welfare programme head at the Nuffield Foundation