Levelling-up the United Kingdom: Introducing the UK Prosperity Index

With the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine and a new trade deal signed with our neighbouring EU states, the national conversation will gradually start to turn back to the Government’s domestic agenda in the coming months, of which its promise to ‘level-up’ left behind regions is the most important.

A commentary for the Centre for UK Prosperity programme by Professor Matthew Goodwin

Published 11 Feb 2021

The United Kingdom has reached a ‘reset moment’. The country has left the European Union (EU), has signed a new trade deal with our neighbouring EU member states, and is currently making great strides in rolling out vaccines to tackle the coronavirus. The waters remain choppy, but in the months to come the national conversation will gradually start to turn back to the Government’s domestic agenda, of which its promise to ‘level-up’ left behind regions is the most important.

As my previous academic research has shown, the Conservative Party’s promise to level-up the regions and reshape the United Kingdom played a central role in unlocking support among ‘cross-pressured’ voters who lean a little to the left on the economy but right on culture. Many of the people who turned to Boris Johnson in 2019 believe that the system is rigged against them and that there is ‘one law for the rich and another for the poor’, and they want greater control over their lives and the areas they call home. They are sick and tired of living amid some of the strongest regional inequalities in the developed world and want to see these addressed.

Already, over the past year, we have seen considerable movement on this front with Chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing £100 billion of capital spending and a £4 billion Levelling-Up Fund, civil servants being moved outside of London, and the launch of a new infrastructure bank in the North of England. But clearly levelling-up requires a coherent and long-term strategy and also one that can track progress at the local level over time.

The levelling-up agenda has also attracted interest from think-tanks, academic institutes, and agencies, which have made important and valuable contributions to the emerging debate. As part of the Centre for UK Prosperity’s review of the existing evidence, we mapped the national conversation about levelling-up in the UK, analysing the 16 most comprehensive data-led reports that were released over the past year. As shown in Figure 1 below, when looked at in the whole, the emerging national conversation about how to level-up is primarily focused on issues around employment and the economy. Much of the discussion is focused on the need to generate jobs, develop strong economies, and invest heavily through infrastructure.

Figure 1: The Levelling-Up Agenda 2019-2020

These things are all incredibly important. But it is clear that to really drive prosperity across the UK we need to expand the conversation beyond giving people faster Wi-Fi, better bridges, and more trains. It also needs to involve strengthening institutions at a local level, helping to build social cohesion, supporting families, and planting the seeds that blossom into economic dynamism and entrepreneurship. Stronger communities are a key component in ensuring that wealth generation translates into improved social wellbeing for all. This is why, in May, we are launching the UK Prosperity Index – the most rigorous and comprehensive data-based assessment of prosperity across the country, which will help drive the levelling-up agenda and identify the local ingredients that are required to cultivate prosperity.

Drawing on our existing, pioneering Legatum Prosperity Index, U.S. Prosperity Index, and research on promoting prosperity throughout the world, our UK Prosperity Index will build a comprehensive picture of prosperity across the UK and at the local authority, regional, and national levels. Rather than look only at the economy and infrastructure, the UK Prosperity Index will span 12 pillars grouped into three domains, and draw on an unprecedented amount of data from more than 50 datasets. The domains are:

  • Inclusive Societies, examining the relationship of citizens to local and central government, the degree to which violence permeates societal norms, the interaction of freedoms of different groups and individuals, and the way in which individuals act with one another, their community, institutions, and nation.
  • Open Economies, capturing the extent to which local areas are open to competition, encourage innovation and investment, promote business and trade, and facilitate inclusive growth. For a society to be truly prosperous, it requires an economy that embodies these ideals.
  • Empowered People, measuring the quality of people’s lived experience and the associated aspects that enable individuals to reach their full potential through autonomy and self-determination, including health and education.

The end result will be a set of more than 60 policy-focused elements, organised under the 12 pillars. Each element will be designed to reflect a discrete policy area that governments, national and local policymakers, and others can influence, promoting actionable insights from the Index to help drive public policy and other initiatives.

Figure 2: The Domains, Pillars, and Elements of Prosperity

The UK Prosperity Index will throw light on the relative performance of local authorities across a wide range of these indicators and enable policymakers and practitioners to assess their area’s strengths and weaknesses to determine the strategic choices that need to be made to drive greater levels of prosperity across the UK.

After the launch of the Index in May, our Centre will convene dozens of events, workshops, and discussion groups up and down the country to promote the sharing of best practice and to derive more local insights from local authorities, stakeholders, philanthropists, businesses, and citizens. We will update our Index on an annual basis so that local authorities, regional institutions, and national government can track levels of prosperity and the progress of the levelling-up agenda over time.

If you or your organisation would like to join our launch, attend one of these sessions, or arrange a discussion about what the UK Prosperity Index reveals about your local area please feel free to drop me a line at matthew.goodwin@li.com