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Is Michael Gove building on sand or stone?

The foundation stone for prosperity is Secure Livelihoods. Without this secure foundation people will not be able to withstand the rain, floods, and winds of life.

Published: Friday 18 February, 2022



Photo by Arina Krasnikova from Pexels


“The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock… (unlike the) foolish man, who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell” Matthew 7:24–27


The levelling-up White Paper finally arrived last week promising a 21st Century Renaissance that will transform the Country and spread opportunity “more equally across the UK” so that “people in places that were once struggling would then fulfil their potential, living longer, healthier and happier lives”.

A revival and transformation of ‘left behind’ communities in which prosperity is shared is central to our purpose at the Institute for Global Prosperity. But achieving this requires a transformation in political and economic thinking, not a retread of ‘inclusive growth,’ and it is here that the White Paper is deficient.

Secure Livelihoods

Our research has established that the foundation stone for prosperity is Secure Livelihoods. This is the rock on which people can build happy and fulfilling lives. Without this secure foundation people will not be able to withstand the rain, floods, and winds of life.

‘Levelling-Up the United Kingdom’ does not talk in terms of secure livelihoods, but instead coalesces around numbers — ‘more growth, more jobs, and higher wages right across the UK.’ But as we have seen time and time again, aggregate growth and statistics showing an increase in jobs and wages, do not necessarily translate into individual wellbeing.

Engineering growth in Blackpool’s economy does not automatically mean residents living in temporary poor quality housing on Waterloo Road feel more secure. Creating one hundred new jobs in Burnley does not provide stability if the people employed are on zero-hours contracts and in precarious work. Increasing average wages in Great Yarmouth does not help local people secure a place to live if the housing market is awash with buyers looking for second homes.

Rather than focus on the economic value of its multiple missions and initiatives, the White Paper should have focused on their social value. Are they making a difference to people, are they enabling livelihood security?

The infrastructure of Secure Livelihoods

Our citizen-led research in east London found that livelihood security was determined by more than income and work, it depended on a set of interconnected, interdependent ‘assets’ that make up the infrastructure for secure livelihoods. Critically for policymakers, these assets and interdependencies cut across multiple sectors and policy silos that commonly decide economic policy.

The authors of the White Paper reach similar conclusions.

“There is no simple or singular solution to reversing spatial disparities because local economies are complex systems, shaped by cumulative and interconnected economic, social and institutional factors.”

Unfortunately, they reach these conclusions without speaking with the people whose prosperity they are seeking to improve. Commenting on an NAO report examining Government spending on levelling-up projects the Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee Dame Meg Hillier accused the Government of having “turned on the taps without really knowing where to direct the hose.” But I would go further. If you do not ask people if they want the taps turned on or where they want you to direct the hose, then you run the risk of putting out the wrong fire.

The National Audit Office report is a damning indictment of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ policies, highlighting the failure of the Department to learn from previous policies but also emphasising the risk that the billions spent will not deliver on the intended benefits as policies “are not consistently based on what is most effective”.

Building Secure Livelihoods

By engaging people to understand the factors that support or prevent the building of secure livelihoods, the architecture you design is more likely to respond to the needs of the people who are living there and be more reflective of their lives and lived experiences. That sounds like a more effective route to happiness and prosperity than a blanket prescription of what the Government describe as “the six capitals which underpin the prosperity of places.”

By training and developing teams of Citizen Social Scientists we were able to identify four key determinants of secure livelihoods in east London:

  1. Secure income and good quality work
  2. Secure genuinely affordable housing
  3. Inclusion in social and economic life
  4. Access to public services and social infrastructure

The White Paper defines six drivers of levelling-up:

  1. Physical capital — infrastructure, machines, and housing
  2. Human capital — the skills, health, and experience of the workforce
  3. Intangible capital — innovation, ideas, and patents
  4. Financial capital — resources supporting the financing of companies
  5. Social capital — the strength of communities, relationships, and trust
  6. Institutional capital — local leadership, capacity, and capability

One and two of our determinants broadly align with the first two of the Government six drivers, and there is some crossover between inclusion in economic and social life and the Government’s fifth driver, social capital. However, the key difference is that the Government drivers are predetermined by orthodox economic thinking. Namely that stimulating growth will trickle-down and boost community and individual prosperity, something that the Secretary of State admitted has failed.

There are two issues with this approach. The first is that it is the same narrow approach that has been tried for decades, and the fact that inter and intra-regional disparities persist is testimony to their failure. And second, if the aim is not only to increase “peoples’ living standards but the length and quality of their lives” as the White Paper sets out, then it needs to be far more attentive to social infrastructure — childcare, social care, transport, legal advice, digital services, the environment etc. While some of these areas are mentioned in the 12 missions outlined in the paper, their genesis as a centrally determined solution is their weakness. Far more needs to be done to devolve and fund the prioritisation of social infrastructure at a local level.

This is not to dismiss the importance of economic matters like jobs and income, but they need to be placed in relation to the other things which people say matter to them.

When talking about what ‘living a good life’ meant to them, the majority of people in our research talked about secure livelihoods, meaning regular and good quality work and affordable and good quality housing in a safe neighbourhood. They talked of these as tightly interwoven with strong social networks and a sense of social and economic inclusion in the life of the city, of being part of change and part of the future.

Without first laying the foundations for secure livelihoods and consequently prosperity, no amount of capital — be it physical or intangible — will enable people to build happier, more prosperous lives.

This article was published by Medium. Please read the full article here.

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