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It’s a fairly uncontroversial statement to say that the politics of the last two years have come to be defined by the Red Wall. The Conservatives have made much of their gains in the North and Midlands, while Labour has done much handwringing. Policy appears to have been skewed by it too. But while these policies may play well at the ballot box for the next election, it’s much more questionable whether they will have much of an impact on people’s lives.
In what follows, the Red Wall is defined as the constituencies the Conservatives have won in the North and Midlands since 2019.
Through the decades politicians of different hues have suggested they have the power to push jobs around the country. The latest branding of this by the current administration is the so called ‘live local and prosper’ idea, suggesting policy will create (high-paid) jobs where people live rather than them having to travel.
We should be deeply sceptical of this. Firstly, because history suggests this isn’t the case. Secondly (which explains in part why it hasn’t worked well in the past), because inherently many of these places don’t offer the benefits that many high-skilled businesses look for – namely, a large pool of high-skilled workers to recruit from and a mix of high-skilled businesses to interact with.
For some it may be easier than others. For example, of the 45 constituencies won by the Conservatives in the North and Midlands since 2019, 13 of them, like Bury South and West Bromwich East, are in the built-up footprint of large cities like Manchester and Birmingham. While from a civic perspective they may be viewed as freestanding places, from an economic one they are part of a big city. And the people living in them are well placed to benefit from high-skilled job creation either within their part or another part of that city.
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that with a wave of the magic policy wand that many smaller places will be able to attract in high-skilled jobs in large numbers. There may be things that policy can do round the margins. And where this is the case it should do it. But there is little policy can do to fundamentally change the offer that these places offer businesses.
That doesn’t mean though that there is nothing policy can offer these places. Quite the opposite.
If it does nothing else, levelling up should do something about skills. Skills is a strong predictor of employment outcomes across both large cities and small towns. And in the constituencies the Conservatives have won in the North and Midlands since 2019, skills levels lag the national average – in 2019, 22 per cent of working age people in these places didn’t have the equivalent of five good GCSEs. This compares to 19.9 per cent across the whole of the North and Midlands, and 17.8 per cent across the UK.
Table 1: Skills and education outcomes in Red Wall constituencies
|Share of people with no or few formal qualifications (2019)||22.0%||17.6%|
|Share of pupils achieving expected results in writing and Maths at KS2 (2019)||62.8%||63.5%|
|Share of pupils in primary schools deemed ‘inadequate’ or ‘needing improvement’||15.7%||12.2%|
|Share of pupils achieving a 9-4 in Maths and English GCSEs (2019)||61.7%||64.9%|
|Share of pupils in secondary schools deemed ‘inadequate’ or ‘needing improvement’||33.7%||21.2%|
Source: ONS; House of Commons Library; DfE
Secondary school performance also lags behind. In 2019, 62 percent of children in these constituencies achieved good grades in both Maths and English, compared to the English average of 65 per cent. And an estimated 34 per cent of secondary school pupils were in schools deemed inadequate or in need of improvement by Ofsted, compared to an English average of 21 per cent. The gaps in primary school performance are narrower but still present.
This is before considering the impact of Covid-19 on educational attainment, which has hit children from deprived backgrounds harder. This makes the Government’s recent underwhelming response to the policy recommendations set out by former education tsar Kevin Collins bad both economically and politically.
It should also be trying to improve standards of living across these constituencies. Measuring standards of living is difficult, but health indicators is one of a number of potential proxies. Data on a series of health outcomes don’t make great reading. As the table below shows, in these areas the share of people who suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, depression or are overweight is higher than the English average.
Table 2: Selected health outcomes in Red Wall constituencies
|Share of people aged 18+ with Depression (2019/20)||13.5%||11.6%|
|Share of people aged 17+ with diabetes (2019/20)||8.0%||7.1%|
|Share of all people with high blood pressure (hypertension), (2019/20)||15.6%||14.2%|
|Share of people aged 18+ that are obese (2019/20)||13.2%||10.6%|
Source: House of Commons Library; ONS
There’s much that could be done to address these issues. And many of these could be done before the next election. For example:
Here is an agenda for red wall towns. By focusing on things that policy does have influence over, such as boosting skills, improving public services and better local transport, policy can make a difference. And in such constituencies, this is what levelling up should be aiming to achieve.
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