The Children’s Commissioner’s report this week was a reminder that the UK has an inequality problem. The statistics it contained showed that place matters: a child from a disadvantaged background in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a child from a disadvantaged background in Hartlepool.
This is no surprise – the UK has the largest regional inequalities in Europe. While our worst off regions bear similarities to those in countries such as the Czech Republic, certain areas of London are by far the richest in Europe. We’re at the stage where you would need seven Liverpools to produce the same Gross Value Add as just the City of London and Camden.
Areas such as Hartlepool and Blackpool are often framed as being ‘left-behind’. This framing places the blame at their feet, implying something they have not done or an opportunity not grasped. But the opposite is true. These towns and regions are not left behind, they are held back – by underinvestment in education, skills, jobs and a welfare system that seeks to punish. ‘Left behind’ suggests that this inequality was a mistake. In truth, it was by design.
Despite the importance of regional inequalities, we are ignoring half the problem when we frame inequality hartlepas a purely about a north-south divide. Inequality is multi-faceted. As the most recent State of the Nation report noted, “Britain is a deeply divided nation. Those divisions take many forms – class, income, gender, race.” These inequalities intersect and, as such, are not just between but within regions.
We must therefore be careful not to frame this as poor kid in London versus poor kid in the North – there are huge disparities within the North, and within London. Last year, around 63.4 per cent of students in the North East got good GCSEs. At local private schools, this figure was closer to 90 per cent.
In London, young people in Kensington & Chelsea are almost twice as likely to have A-levels as those in Barking & Dagenham. Overall, children who receive free school meals are 27 per cent less likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs.
We need to remember these facts when we think about solutions, because the issue here is not that poor children in London are getting too much attention. The solution is not to take resources away from disadvantaged children in the capital, but to do more to tackle the underlying causes of poverty everywhere.
Of course, there is no easy way to solve this – as is clear from various different initiatives under various different governments the past 20 years. For example, the Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for focusing solely on big metropolitan areas at the expense of smaller towns. Calls to build HS2 or HS3 across the North overlook the need for better connections within many northern cities. The town of Leigh, in Greater Manchester, has a population of 50,000 people but no train station.
To begin to solve the problem, we need to make regional investments on a scale not seen for many decades. For years, the UK has lagged behind other G7 countries when it comes to levels of public and private investment. Investing doesn’t just makes good economic sense: not doing so leads to festering inequality and discontent. To this we need to get over our obsession with balancing the books and austerity.
We also need to build in distributional consequences into our policy process. The education select committee recently recommended introducing ‘social justice impact assessments’ to ensure that new policy proposals do not exacerbate inequalities. A quick glance at the distributional impact of eight years of austerity cuts will tell you that the current approach is not socially just. We need to be clear that, where policies are going to make inequality worse, they need to be redesigned – or binned.
Moving forward, things could get worse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that inequality will rise over the coming years, and the government’s own Brexit impact assessments have shown that already struggling areas will be hardest hit by the decision to leave the European Union. These areas need protection and investment now. The status quo wasn’t working before Brexit –so we shouldn’t think a government commitment to match EU investment is enough.
Ultimately, though, we can’t tackle this country’s inequalities without stopping the cuts and without having a more progressive tax system. The statistics in this week’s report make shocking reading – but without a wholesale change in our approach, the life chances of millions of UK citizens will continue to be defined for them, not by them.
Dr Faiza Shaheen is director of, and Liam Kennedy a research officer, for CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies).