Levelling up study: despite Covid bringing communities together, social divisions have grown

  • Whilst COVID-19 brought communities together to support the vulnerable, it has exacerbated inequalities with 44% of people feeling that the pandemic has increased social divisions since it started
  • After a year spent closer to home, the public wants housing, high streets, jobs and skills to top the levelling-up agenda, with housing a stand out priority as 70% of the public say a focus on housing would be most effective in levelling up the country
  • The majority of the public would nevertheless recommend their area as a place to live
  • Low levels of public trust is a challenge for central government but creates opportunities for charities, local government and businesses to build on trust earned through COVID-19 response

PwC’s latest Future of Government research, Rethinking Levelling-Up, surveyed 4,000 people across the UK and found that, whilst communities have become more important to people during the pandemic, 44% of people feel that social divisions have increased. 

While 38% of those polled say their local community has become more important to them, and 39% agree that the pandemic brought their community together, a greater number feel that it has increased social divisions in every region, with those in London and Wales feeling the strongest divisions. The public feel a sense of geographical inequality, with 52% of people feeling there is too much inequality in the UK, and 47% are concerned about the inequalities between London and the rest of the UK.

Nationally, 39% of people say their area has been treated fairly by central government in the pandemic. This falls 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.

Despite concerns around geographical inequality, the UK public are generally happy to recommend their area as a place to live, with more than half of those polled (62%) willing to recommend their local areas to live in and raise a family, however, only 36% would encourage anyone to start a business in their area. 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%. 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%).

Dan Burke, Strategy& partner for Government & Health Industries at PwC, said:

“The pandemic might have brought neighbours together to support each other and the vulnerable, but this has been at a very local level. We should not underestimate the inequalities it has created socially and geographically. COVID-19 has introduced new divisions, such as those who are able to work from home and those who are not, 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. While the public are most concerned about inequalities between London and the rest of the UK, ‘levelling up’ needs to go deeper and address the inequalities that exist within regions and between communities.”

Dialing up local investment to level-up

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

Housing is the stand out priority for the public with 70% saying a focus on housing (supply and quality) would be most effective in levelling up the country and reducing inequality. This increases to 76% in Scotland, 75% in Northern Ireland and 74% in the North West.

Jobs and skills for the future are a big focus for the public, as 49% would like to see levelling up focus on creating more better paid jobs and 44% highlight investment in skills for the future. Access to better paid jobs is a key issue for younger people, who have been heavily impacted by a disrupted labour market, with 52% of 18-24 year olds naming it as a priority, compared to 44% of over-55s. 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%).

While the pandemic has accelerated the move to online shopping, it has not diminished the importance of vibrant high streets and town centres for the public. 43% of people would like to see investment in town centres and high streets as a priority in levelling up inequalities.

Karen Finlayson, Regional Lead for Government at PwC said:

“COVID-19 has led people to refocus on what really matters to their everyday lives. ‘Levelling up’ has become shorthand for big infrastructure and connectivity investments, but it’s clear that making levelling up a reality for the public will take investment in local places, jobs and homes. A year of people living closer to home has recalibrated what is important and the levelling up agenda needs to be reset around locally targeted investment and building community resilience within a place."

Opportunities to build on trust

Over three quarters (76%) of respondents hold the central government responsible for reducing geographical inequality. However, less than one in ten of our respondents trusts that central government ‘listens to people like me’ or ‘takes my needs into account when making decisions’.

People feel greater connections with third sector community groups and charities and local government, with 29% and 25% feeling that community groups and charities respectively listen to ‘people like me’.

During the pandemic the role of business has been under the spotlight, and business emerges with an opportunity to play a greater role in improving opportunity, social mobility and equality in the places where they operate. Over half of respondents (55%) feel they have been treated fairly by their employers during the pandemic and 38% see businesses as most responsible for good jobs. 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. 

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