How close are the Government to giving people the levelling up that they want?

While considerable time has been spent speculating on what the Government means by levelling up and ruminating on how it has gone about delivering it, including our discussion of levelling up investment, there has been little in the way of analysis of what people living in places targeted for government levelling up funding actually think or want.

This series of short blogs seeks to answer that question. It follows recent polling in the local authority areas given highest priority in the Levelling Up Fund, which was carried out by YouGov on behalf of the Law Family Commission on Civil Society. They explore the extent to which people want levelling up and when they want it to happen, as well as what people actually want from it, and who they want to be in charge.

Alongside overwhelming support for the idea of levelling up, the Government’s broad vision seems to be in the right ballpark as far as the public are concerned

With levelling up now ensconced within its own government department and a high-profile taskforce publicly announced, the Government will no doubt be getting down to the detail of defining exactly what a levelled-up UK looks like and how we will know if we are getting there.

While critics have cited the lack of definitive levelling up objectives to date, the best clue about the broad measures for success can be found in Boris Johnson’s recent speech, in which he described progress in levelling up as when:

“We have begun to raise living standards, spread opportunity, improved our public services and restored people’s sense of pride in their community.”

Since then, these outcomes have gained increasing prominence across government, with both the Prime Minister’s Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities directly referring to them in recent weeks.

Our polling suggests these outcomes are broadly in line with what people in areas targeted for levelling up funding want. Improved living standards is the most important outcome among the public, with almost half of those surveyed putting it in their top three, a result that was consistent across voters of all persuasions and didn’t change even when controlling for age, occupation, gender, or region of the UK.


Figure 1. The public are broadly supportive of the Government’s broad vision for levelling up

What do you think should be the most important outcomes of levelling up an area?

While opportunity, public services and pride in community lagged behind health and happiness overall, they certainly weren’t unpopular, and it seems that striving to deliver these is likely to meet expectations regardless of people’s voting preference.

With living standards out in front, “more opportunity to get on in life” polled second for both Labour and Lib Dem voters, while “pride in community” came in second for Conservatives.


Figure 2. There seems to be something for everyone regardless of their political persuasions

What do you think should be the most important outcomes of levelling up an area? (Split by vote at 2019 general election)

Despite a broad consensus on the need for and aims of levelling up, a schism between the Government’s approach and public opinion begins to appear when we get to the question of what is needed to deliver it

There are broadly two schools of thought within government about how to go about delivering levelling up.

First is what could be described as the ‘connectivity’ approach, most evident in the Government’s ‘Build Back Better’ programme, that seeks to boost economic growth and productivity through investment in physical infrastructure. This approach focuses particularly on rail development, road building, and broadband networks to improve connections and aid the flow of goods, people, and information, with a particular emphasis on development outside of London and the South East.

The second strand of government thinking about levelling up can be characterised as the ‘community’ approach. In particular, a prioritisation of investment in the communities once described by Boris Johnson as the “the forgotten people and the left behind towns” and generally considered to experience the worst socio-economic outcomes relative to the rest of the country.


Figure 3. Levelling up investment is focused on two general themes – connectivity and community – with funding for physical infrastructure dominant

Levelling up investment announced, as of March 2021


The Levelling Up Fund and Towns Fund account for 96% of this ‘community’ investment and again focus on physical infrastructure, this time local transport, town centre and high street regeneration, development or restoration of cultural assets and development of enterprise infrastructure.

Yet while the Government prioritises improving the physical appearance or connectivity of places in order to achieve levelling up, those living there are more interested in investment in the fundamentals of people’s lives. This includes good jobs on decent pay, improved public services, lower crime, as well as better and more affordable housing.

While improved infrastructure will help attract investment to an area, it is not guaranteed that this will lead to the kind of well-paid, high quality jobs people seem to be prioritising. A 2020 poll of business leaders highlighted that while 80% thought investment in the north of England was a good idea, the most important motivation for  them was access to a cheaper workforce.


Figure 4. While the Levelling Up Fund prioritises transport infrastructure, town centres and cultural assets, people would prefer to direct spending towards improving jobs and social conditions

If the government were to provide more money to “level up” the place where you live, what should be the main priorities for investment?


Our previous research has indicated that redressing the balance between investing in the infrastructure of places and the things that make the biggest difference to people’s lives will be crucial to putting levelling up on the right track.

Being guided by measures of wellbeing to determine what should be invested in, as well as measuring the success of those investments, will go a long way to ensuring levelling up makes the biggest difference to the things that matter most to people.

And our polling seems to support this, showing that happiness is one of the most important outcomes for people living in areas prioritised for funding.


Figure 5. Wellbeing is a key concern for the public, indicating that integrating measures of life satisfaction into levelling up will help to close the gap between Government action and public expectations

What do you think should be the most important outcomes of levelling up an area?