“These towns and regions are not left behind – they are held back”

Hartlepool: not left behind, but abandoned. Image: Getty.

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).


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.