Go big or go home: UK2070 Commission warns government it must deliver generational shift to address regional inequality

  • Inquiry into UK regional inequalities calls for over £200 billion of additional spending to level up the economy
  • Academics from the University of Sheffield, a founding partner of the UK2070 Commission, call for a “truly intergenerational approach”
  • The UK is the most unequal large country in the developed world

Map showing unemployment rates across the UK

An independent inquiry into the regional inequalities that have blighted Britain says the government must learn the lessons of the past and think big if it is serious about levelling up the UK economy.

The UK2070 Commission has carried out an 18-month study into the regional inequalities that have left the UK the most unequal large country in the developed world.

In a series of reports, the Commission’s experts have found that the economic gap between different parts of the UK has widened to the point where London’s productivity growth over the last decade was nine times higher than that of the area covered by the whole of the Northern Powerhouse.

The University of Sheffield is one of the founding partners of the UK2070 Commission, which published its final report today (27 February 2020). Academics including Professor Philip McCann from the University’s Management School and Philip Brown from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning played key roles in supporting the Commission and contributing their research.

Professor Alasdair Rae, Professorial Fellow at the University of Sheffield and UK2070 Commissioner, said: “The basic premise of the final report is that in order to rebalance the UK and deal with persistent regional inequalities, we need a truly intergenerational approach with commitment from across the political spectrum.

“We recognise that the Commission’s recommendations are lofty ambitions that will require significant resource, yet at the same time we believe that unless we 'think big' such transformations are unlikely to be achieved.”

Commission Chair Lord Kerslake, the former Head of the Home Civil Service, warned the government that it must “go big or go home” if it is to arrest further economic decline and social division.

Lord Kerslake said: “The government’s desire to level up the UK economy is welcome. However, the scale of the challenge we face is such that we need a generational shift if we are to avoid serious decline and division.

“Many people in Britain feel left behind by growth elsewhere and that has contributed to an acrimonious debate about Europe. We now face a decade of potential disruption – leaving the European Union, confronting the impact of climate change and adjusting to the fourth industrial revolution.

“Our research shows clearly that these inequalities did not grow up overnight. They reflect an over-centralised system which fails to comprehend the reality of regional need and consistently comes up with policies which are either under-resourced, too fragmented or too short-lived to make a difference. Some policy guidelines have actively stacked the odds against the regions.

“Time is not on our side and we cannot afford to keep on repeating those mistakes. Government must therefore think big, plan big and act at scale. Bluntly, if it can’t go big, it should go home.”

In its final report – Make No Little Plans: Acting At Scale For a Fairer and Stronger Future – the UK2070 Commission calls on the government to stand alongside business and community organisations and make a public pledge to tackle inequality through a 10-point programme of action:

  • Tripling the new Shared Prosperity Fund to £15 billion per annum and continuing that commitment for 20 years – an extra expenditure of £200 billion over that already planned.
  • Investing in a new connectivity revolution, transforming the connections between cities, within cities and beyond cities to poorly connected towns. Infrastructure investment needs to increase to at least three per cent of GDP per annum.
  • Creating new ‘Networks of Excellence’ in regional Research and Development to match the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge.
  • Shifting power and funding away from Westminster and Whitehall through a radical programme of devolution.
  • Strengthening the local economies in disadvantaged towns.
  • Tackling the historic underperformance of the UK on skills.

The UK2070 Commission’s findings represent the culmination of 18 months of research and consultation carried out by six UK universities including the University of Sheffield, supported by the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, a specialist research organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It has purposely looked back over the last 50 years to identify the factors that have led to the UK’s serious regional inequalities, and forwards to 2070 to establish the scale of the response necessary to achieve a better-balanced economy.

Its findings offer graphic insights into the impact of lost productivity and point to the need for substantially increased long-term investment in infrastructure, skills, research and development and reviving local economies.

The Commission suggests the UK will need to double the rate of jobs growth and keep it there to have any chance of rebalancing the UK economy by 2070. But it says the financial rewards in increased productivity and wellbeing will far outweigh the extra costs.

Lord Kerslake has also said that decades of policy failure point to the need for radical change in the way government operates, guided by a cross-departmental ‘Levelling Up’ plan which coordinates and measures progress.

Stronger pan-regional collaboration should also be established, building on the foundations of the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine and Western gateway partnerships.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

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Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

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For further information please contact:

Sophie Armour
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The University of Sheffield
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