Reducing Regional Divides

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Making a meaningful difference through transformative change

As we have outlined in this short report for Centre for Thriving Places, the UK’s regional economic divisions are both persistent and legendary. “The UK is one of the most regionally imbalanced economies in the industrialised world,” according to Lord Kerslake of the UK 2070 Commission – and this imbalance can have detrimental effects on so many aspects of our lives. The government’s current ‘levelling up’ missions aim to address regional inequalities but lack ambition, feasibility and transparency over funding; some argue the plans are top-down and under-resourced. Furthermore, because government policies in recent years have increased regional inequalities and the combined negative impacts of Brexit and COVID-19 have exacerbated this for those places already ‘left behind’, the scale of the problem to be tackled is vast. Many, including the UK 2070 Commission, are calling for radical and long-term action to stabilise the UK economy and reduce regional divides.

The hope is that local and regional authorities will be able to deliver on levelling up. There are positive signs, as outlined in our report, but success requires strategic political leadership and universal service provision to meet people’s basic needs. It also requires a wider range of local metrics to evaluate social and economic progress. The Thriving Places Index (TPI) provides one such tool for local and regional decision-makers to assess the wellbeing impacts of these strategies, including a wide range of indicators covering the local conditions for wellbeing, equality and sustainability.

What can the TPI tell us about these regional divides?

The TPI is particularly helpful for looking at inequalities within regions and drilling down into which metrics are driving them. Nonetheless, we have conducted some supplementary analysis which highlights the differences between regions as well, in terms of places that thrive and those that lag behind. Table 1 shows that the regions with the highest proportion of their local authorities scoring high are in the South of England, whereas those with a higher proportion of low scores are the North East and East Midlands. The South East region also contains the local authority with the highest Local Conditions score whereas the lowest is in the North West.

Table 1. 

TPI HeadlinesMost high scoring local authoritiesMost low scoring local authorities
Local ConditionsSouth EastNorth East
EqualitySouth WestEast Midlands
SustainabilitySouth EastNorth East

The picture is more varied when we look at the more detailed domains in Table 2 below. There remains a gap in outcomes between North and South. The South East and London had the largest proportion of local authorities scoring very high for health, work, and the local economy, whereas over half of local authorities in the North East had low scores on these domains. In contrast, the largest proportion of local authorities with high scores for Place and Environment are in the North East, while local authorities in London are more likely to score lowest on both Place and Environment and People and Community.

 Table 2. 

TPI Domains within Local ConditionsMost high scoring local authoritiesMost low scoring local authorities
Place and EnvironmentNorth EastLondon
Mental and Physical HealthLondonNorth East
Education and LearningSouth WestWest Midlands
Work and Local EconomySouth EastNorth East
People and CommunitySouth WestLondon

Should we be optimistic then that the levelling up strategy and more regional devolution will be successful in reducing the regional divides where so many other initiatives have failed? And how will local leaders know what is working and what progress is being made? In their recent book, Levelling up Left Behind Places, Ron Martin and colleagues recommend place-based policies which devolve economic, financial and political power to cities, towns and localities, serving specific local needs and circumstances; we therefore discuss some further analysis of TPI scores at Combined Authority level in our report, including assessing whether these already devolved administrations tend to have local authorities with higher or lower scores.

The TPI provides an excellent opportunity to investigate these questions, assess their significance, identify key trends and delve into the detail. The full results can help localities and regions with distinct forms of governance and different environmental, social and economic conditions, to track their progress, understand their local circumstances and engage in dialogue with communities, businesses and third sector organisations. It can help them to identify and act on their priorities in order to make their economies work for wellbeing, sustainability and equality.

About the authors

The report was authored by Jessica Pykett and Laura Kudrna, Co-Directors of the Centre for Urban Wellbeing, with research assistance from Iman Ghosh and Lailah Alidu.