Levering up: How to really engineer an equal U.K.


By Chris Naylor and Jamie Ounan 


The government’s levelling up paper helps clarify Whitehall’s definition of the issue, and spotlight regional disparities. But it fails to convince that it truly wants to help those who need help the most and understands why that matters. 


The white paper went straight to tactics and outcomes via a checklist of missions and a promise of mayors. But you can’t set a mission without properly defining the vision of the world you want to create. Like other politicians who dutifully check off mentions of jobs, housing and skills whenever discussing this exercise in equalizing, the authors of the paper missed the fundamental at the heart of this. What do people feel they most lack? Power.  


To feel that you’re on a level playing field with everyone else is a matter of agency. To feel that you are secure in your environment, can make your own decisions about your life, and can thrive is a matter of agency. Recognising that means designing a plan that works for the furthest first. Otherwise the response tactics look like the same old same old: reactive work, in silos, to fit a framework set by regulators and/or funders. If we’re really going to level up, we have to start by understanding and addressing the root causes of structural inequality and the power gap. 


In 2015, the average healthy life expectancy of women in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham was 53 years. In one of the most successful city economies on earth and at a time when we had never spent more money on health and social care. For the local council to work out why that was happening and design an answer meant moving out of a reflex crisis response and instead thinking in 3D: digging into the root cause, contextualising and prioritising local factors and designing a truly new and different service around the individual from scratch.


That work excavated a list of experiences that intersected and led learning about what was really going on. Looking at homelessness with a new 3D focus revealed how linked it was to debt. Looking at school exclusions with a new 3D focus revealed how many of those young people were known to children’s services or the care system. Looking at social isolation and mental ill-health with a 3D focus showed how linked they are with frailty, homelessness and low or no pay. Domestic abuse is understood far better when the impact of trauma on lives and communities is revealed.


And of course, this learning led to further learning. It is those households where one or more of these risk factors exist that face the most acute challenges and where informed work can make the most difference. Different groups of people experience life differently and only understanding intersectionality can deliver an intersectional response. The white paper was striking in its lack of references to social infrastructure or childcare. It made no mention of any design for anti-racism. It referenced no understanding that people are minoritised and made vulnerable by systemic inequality. It said nothing to the point that it is barriers in society that disable people rather than their difference.


When we can frame the work of levelling up as the work of agency and a response to different lived experiences, we can create places and spaces with the energy and freedom that comes with understanding that designing shared prosperity means starting in different places with different communities. 


Rather than repeating top-down mantras about skills, we can build training for new ways of living into the new communities that we are co-creating with the local people who know they can lead the work.  


When we talk about digital inclusion we understand far better the scale of the task – that connectivity isn’t just rolling out fibre networks but also ensuring everyone has the hardware and training ensure equal access to learning material, and jobs and support services, as well as to each other.  


We can talk about places and housing with an understanding of the different designs that different groups of people require and we can design renewable futures in conversation with councils and local leaders in the understanding that climate action is one of the biggest opportunities for local resilience and growth in an ever-tightening funding environment. Furthermore, our image of ‘local leaders’ has shifted to understand this is not a (usually male) mayor or councillor, but a network of civil society activists, individuals and families working alongside local government and businesses.


And we can work on all of this with data-driven early detection and forecasting of likely multiple complex needs. We can make existing data work harder and support capabilities to draw holistic systems of help and support that avert unnecessary and avoidable personal and family crisis.


At Inner Circle, our vision is to release better futures in every community. Gove would probably say the same. But at ICC, crucially, we understand that ours is the enabling role. Levelling up isn’t about giving things away – it’s about being the lever that people can use to change their lives. To paraphrase Archimedes: Give people a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and they can move their own worlds.