THE Prime Minister has said that “levelling up” and reuniting the country will be an important part of his mission.
Today the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation is setting out why this must mean solving poverty for so many of our citizens – and how governments, communities and employers can truly achieve that by working together.
Delivering on this is not only necessary to take the country forward, but there is also an electoral imperative. In a region like Yorkshire, whose parliamentary seats changed hands in unprecedented ways to deliver Boris Johnson’s majority, many people are looking for meaningful change that they can see and feel on the ground.
It is not right that people in some regions, and in places within regions, are locked out of the best opportunities. But there is no eye-catching scheme or quick fix, however big the investment, that is going to loosen the grip of poverty across the UK.
As this newspaper’s Power Up the North campaign has confirmed, levelling up is about a fundamental shift in where power lies and how we empower people and communities. Doing it well will benefit everyone in the UK but it can’t be done piece by piece.
One in five people in Yorkshire live in poverty, and one in three children. That’s over a million people in this region alone, and a rise of 30,000 in the last five years. It is not right that so many people are struggling to stay afloat, with rising costs and flatlining incomes. Put simply, poverty is when you don’t have enough resources to meet your basic needs, such as paying for the essentials like the heating or rent.
Imagine you’re a mum of two, working as a carer. You walk three miles to work each day. Your income barely covers your household costs and you struggle to stay afloat. To get a better paid job you’d need to travel further, but the cost of the bus and train fare would wipe out the increase in pay.
Or you’re a single dad working part-time at a supermarket on minimum wage. Your employer offers you more hours, but you can’t find affordable childcare in your area that covers the extra hours. The lack of options locks you in poverty. This is the daily reality for many people in our region and around the UK.
Of all family types, working single parents have been swept fastest into poverty, with three in 10 now struggling to stay afloat compared with just two in 10 a decade ago. Some 350,000 children in Yorkshire and the Humber are in poverty, a number that is the equivalent of the entire population of Bradford.
Recent years have seen a variety of ad hoc attempts to loosen the grip of poverty one issue at a time. However, there hasn’t been a sustained period in the last 15 years where all the four main drivers of poverty – jobs, earnings, benefit rates and rents – have gone in the right direction.
At the beginning of that 15-year period, rents started rising, then during the Great Recession employment levels and earnings fell. Following that, benefit increases have lagged behind both prices and average incomes.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is calling for action on all of the root causes which still affect people in Yorkshire and around the UK.
Firstly we need good jobs that pay a decent wage and provide security. While the proportion of people in employment has risen consistently for six years, weak local economies in some areas have led to higher unemployment and more low paid jobs in those areas than in the UK as a whole.
Secondly we need to strengthen the benefits system so that it provides the anchor that people need in tough times, which is an essential public service. The Government’s commitment to raising benefits and tax credits with inflation is welcome, but not enough by itself to unlock families from poverty. The five-week wait for Universal Credit should be removed, and support boosted for families with children.
Finally we need to increase low-cost housing for families on low incomes, and increase support for people with high housing costs. We also need to address the sense of insecurity felt by many people living in the private rented sector.
It’s time to get to work on righting the wrong of 14 million people trapped in poverty and unlock opportunities across the country. Rebalancing the country with more investment in the North of England is essential but to truly level up we need to make sure change is felt in our homes and communities.
The Government has rightly raised the expectations of voters across the country and must deliver truly transformational change. Now Ministers have a full term and a comfortable majority they must make those better jobs, affordable homes and regional opportunities a reality.
Claire Ainsley is executive director of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation.