Rethinking ‘levelling up’

After a year spent closer to home, the public supports the Government’s aim to level up the UK but wants housing, high streets, jobs and skills to top the agenda.


Housing tops the agenda

While much of the focus of levelling up has been on road, rail and innovative technology, our research shows the public's concerns are closer to home and that social divisions have grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our polling reveals a consistent call for a greater emphasis on quality, affordable homes, skills and good jobs, as well as vibrant town and city centres. If levelling up is to succeed, it needs to go deeper than the North-South divide and address the inequalities within regions and communities. Critically, the agenda needs to better respond to the public’s concerns.

Levelling up must be local

COVID-19 has exposed deepening health, societal and economic divisions across the UK, and exacerbated them, prompting the Government to reaffirm its commitment to levelling up and reducing geographical inequalities.

The pandemic has forced many people to lead their lives much closer to home, and in turn reassess their priorities. As part of our Future of Government programme, we asked 4,000 members of the UK public about their concerns around geographical inequality and what they would prioritise in the levelling up agenda.

When asked to rank the most important factors regarding the place they live, the public put the quality of healthcare, community safety and green space at the top of the list. But their priorities for levelling up were revealed as those with the biggest gap between importance and satisfaction - housing, jobs and vibrant town centres.

Public priorities for levelling up

Affordable and quality housing

Housing was the stand out priority for our respondents: 74% agree that the quality and affordability of housing is an important factor in the area they live and 70% agree a focus on housing would be the most effective in levelling up the country and reducing inequality.

This figure climbed even higher in some regions, including those where housing is relatively more affordable compared to other parts of the UK, including Scotland (76%), Northern Ireland (75%) and the North West (74%), highlighting the need to unpack issues around housing affordability and consider local housing market dynamics as well as regional. Housing is also notably a bigger levelling up priority for 18-24 year olds (76%) than over-55s (68%), highlighting a generational divide with young people struggling to get on to the housing ladder, as well as a geographic one. 

Good quality and affordable housing, along with good jobs and a vibrant high street/town centre, are three of the five factors where the public expressed lower satisfaction in our survey (42% nationally, falling as low as 33% in the South East). Building housing across a range of tenures in the right places, balancing both affordability and quality concerns, will be key as people reassess where they live and remote working potentially opens up new opportunities away from major cities, as we are starting to see in relation to London.

Jobs and skills for the future

After housing, our polling revealed that the public believes the best way to even out geographical disparities and create a more equal society would be to help people into better paid jobs and invest in skills for the future. The proportion of people highlighting access to better paid jobs as a priority is highest in North East England (55%) - the English region with the highest unemployment rate and lowest median weekly wage - followed by Wales (55%) and Scotland (53%). The regions prioritising investment in skills are the East Midlands (49%), West Midlands (49%) and the East of England (49%).

The younger generation prioritises access to better paid jobs, with 52% of 18-24 year olds naming it as a priority, compared to 44% of over-55s. Older people are more likely to see investing in skills for future jobs as a priority (51% of over-65s, compared to 38% of 18-24 year olds). This reflects the immediate challenges younger generations face in finding employment and good jobs in a disrupted labour market which has heavily impacted younger workers, but in the longer term a focus on skills, and upskilling, will be needed if people are to take advantage of future job opportunities.

Vibrant local communities

With people spending more time in their local communities, it is perhaps not surprising that vibrant high streets and town centres are at the front of the public’s mind. As retail businesses will know only too well, the pandemic has accelerated the move to online shopping. However it does not seem to have diminished the pull of town centres as places to gather, socialise and spend leisure time which will be heartening to the hospitality and other related industry sectors. As remote working shifts to hybrid working, we are likely to see a shift in activity from the places where people work, to the neighbourhoods where people live, with significant implications for larger cities in particular.

The public holds local government as primarily responsible for their local high streets and town centres (37%) followed by businesses (25%). It is critical that local authorities, landlords and retail, hospitality and other affected businesses rethink how they respond to shortfalls in footfall and the growing decline in store occupants and work together to create places where people want to live, work and play.

“Levelling up has become shorthand for big infrastructure and connectivity investments, but it’s clear that making it a reality for the public will take investment in local places, jobs and homes. The levelling up agenda needs to be reset around hyper-local targeted investment and building community resilience.”

Karen FinlaysonRegional Lead for Government

COVID-19: the leveller becomes a divider

Growing social divisions

While 38% of those polled say their local community has become more important to them, 22% disagree, and though 39% agree that the pandemic brought their community together, a greater number feel that it has increased social divisions in every region. Those in the North East and South West are most positive about their communities having come together, at 44%.

Regarding how people feel their area has been treated by the Government during the COVID-19 pandemic, 39% nationally feel their area has been treated fairly. This falls notably in the North West where only 29% feel their area has been treated fairly, but climbs as high as 45% in the West Midlands and East of England. Of the devolved nations, 28% in Northern Ireland feel their area has been treated fairly, compared to 38% in Scotland and 36% in Wales. These concerns will need to be addressed to deliver a recovery that the public feels is fair.

Places to live and start a business

Despite concerns around geographical inequality, the UK public are generally happy to recommend their area as a place to live. People are most likely to recommend their area in Northern Ireland (69%), the South West (68%) and the East of England (67%), with London and the West Midlands being less favourable at 57%.

There are some signs of dissatisfaction among young people, with just under half (49%) of 18-24 years olds agreeing their area is a good place to live compared to 76% of 65+ year olds.

However, though more than half of those polled would recommend their local areas to live in and raise a family, only 36% would encourage anyone to start a business in their area. More positively, this rises to 46% when you ask business owners only, with the most positive response in the West Midlands where 64% of business owners would recommend it as a good place to start-up. The best regions to start a business in the eyes of the general public are at either ends of England - the North East (42%) and London (41%).

Tackling regional inequality

The public has a strong sense of geographical inequality, with widespread recognition for the imbalance between London and other parts of the UK (47%). Some 44% were concerned about regional inequalities, such as the North-South divide, and 37% were worried about rural-urban divides. Some 38% were concerned about inequality between the four UK nations, particularly in Northern Ireland where the figure rose to 58%. People in Northern Ireland were also more likely to be concerned about inequalities between cities, towns and rural areas.

The public are less concerned about inequalities within a local area. There is also a level of acceptance of geographical inequality in society, with the majority (70%) agreeing that some places will 'always do better than others'. This is particularly true of older generations, with only 54% of 18-24 year olds agreeing compared to 79% of 55-64 year olds and 84% of over 65s. Londoners are least likely to agree with this statement (65%), while those in Wales and the East of England are most likely to agree (74%).

“COVID-19 might have brought neighbours together, but this has been at a very local level. The pandemic has introduced new divisions, as well as reinforcing deep rooted ones, that will need to be addressed head on at a local level to deliver a fair recovery across the UK.”

Dan BurkeStrategy& Partner

Working together for a fair recovery

Central and local government

Central government is still seen as having by far the greatest responsibility for reducing geographical inequality, with collaboration between central and local government, businesses, charities and community groups coming in second at 15%, followed by local government at 14%. But less than one in ten of our respondents trusted that central government ‘listens to people like me’ or ‘takes my needs into account when making decisions’. Local government fares better, with 23% agreeing that local government ‘represents people like me’ and 21% agree that it ‘takes my needs into account’. More than a third of those polled agree that local government is most responsible for both housing and a vibrant high street or town centre.

While central government holds the ultimate responsibility, there is a clear opportunity for local government to play a leading role in delivering on the levelling up agenda and building on its strengths in terms of local representation and the trust of the public.

Charities and community groups

While there is a clear disconnect between the public and government, the third sector fares better, with 29% agreeing that community groups listen and represent ‘people like me’ - in each case the highest proportion of any group we asked about - and charities coming close behind. Community groups also have the highest proportions agreeing that they ‘treat me like an individual’ and ‘take my needs into account when making decisions’.

The important role that charities and community groups play locally is often overlooked but will be key for government and business in delivering on levelling up and building community resilience, as well as building on the collaborative relationships that were established or strengthened in response to COVID-19.

A bigger role for business

Business emerges in our survey with an opportunity to play a greater role in improving opportunity, social mobility and equality in the places where they operate. Some 43% of respondents trust business to act to deliver a fair recovery, compared to 38% that trust central government and 40% that trust local government.

Business is held primarily responsible for delivering good jobs, supporting entrepreneurship and, together with local government, for creating vibrant high streets and town centres - all of which will be critical issues to address to deliver a fair recovery across the UK.

During the pandemic, the role of business has been under the spotlight and we have seen business at its best. Many businesses have demonstrated what purpose is all about, and they have an equally if not more important role to play in shaping the recovery.

***Citizen poll using PwC Research’s QuantiBus survey. Nationally representative UK sample - 4,000 responses. Fieldwork conducted across four consecutive weekends (27 November - 22 December 2020).

Regional Spotlights

61% of people in the East Midlands recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

67% of people in the East of England recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

57% of people in London recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

64% of people in the North East recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

60% of people in the North West recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

69% of people in Northern Ireland recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

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60% of people in Scotland recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

62% of people in the South East recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

65% of people in Wales recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

57% of people in the West Midlands recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

68% of people in the South West recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

60% of people in Yorkshire & Humber recommend their local area as a place to live (UK average - 62%)

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Quentin  Cole

Quentin Cole

Head of Industries, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7770 303846

Karen Finlayson

Karen Finlayson

Lead Client Partner for NHS National Bodies, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7881 805552

Ben Pykett

Ben Pykett

Future of Government Lead Partner, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7841 786900