OPINION: What does the phrase 'levelling up' really mean?

Clear winter days provide great light for photography in Norfolk. Terraced houses in Norwich. Pictur

Figures show that Norwich and East Norfolk had an average annual household income of £17,907, just 85% of the national average. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

I imagine that many people do not fully understand what "levelling up" means.

Indeed some may wonder whether there is even anyone in the government who does.

Certainly many feel that the gap between rich and poor is far too wide and fails to reflect the real value of their contributions to society. What is the moral justification, they say, for paying nurses and care workers far less than lawyers and accountants?

Others, however, argue that market forces are the only practical solution to arriving at fair incomes.

But we certainly appear to have a problem. According to Professor Philip McCann of the University of Sheffield, the UK is one of the most regionally unequal countries in the industrialised world.

In 2018, Office of National Statistics figures show that Norwich and East Norfolk had an average annual household income of £17,907, just 85% of the national average.

By contrast, Westminster averaged £54,847 and Buckinghamshire £30,079. At the other end of the scale, South Teeside averaged £15,764 and Bradford £15,319.

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Regional variations, however, are not the only measure of inequality and arguably mask the true extent of the problem.

Incomes also vary widely by age, sex, ability, inherited wealth, educational level and ethnicity. As a result, many households earn far less than the average regional figures.

They live in or near poverty, often unable to afford to heat their homes, pay their rent, or buy essentials for their children. The stress it causes deprives them of the chance to play a full part in society.

The government has acknowledged that ability is evenly distributed throughout the country but that opportunity is not.

They appear to believe that increasing opportunities is the key to unlocking the problem. However many recognise that the issue is far more complex than that. We live in a highly competitive world in which hard work, creativity and shouldering great responsibility are justifiably well rewarded.

This helps to create jobs and drive the economy forward. But many people cannot compete effectively because of difficult family circumstances, a poor education, physical disabilities, mental health problems or low intelligence. In a civilised society, should we be happy to condemn such people to a life of relative poverty?

How then should levelling up be approached? Is the answer to channel additional funding to the poorer regions, or to poorer people across all regions? To invest in creating more businesses in deprived areas or to increase benefits paid to poorer families? To build better transport, so people can commute more easily to higher-paying jobs, or devolve more power to local government, so they can build their local economies?

Geoffrey Smart

Geoffrey Smart - Credit: Geoffrey Smart

On January 25, there will be a chance to find out. Professor Diane Coyle of the University of Cambridge will be visiting Norwich School to deliver a public lecture on "What will it Take to Level Up? - Views from a Leading Economist".

Diane Coyle is no ordinary economist. She is co-director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge and was awarded a CBE for her contribution to the public understanding of economics in the 2018 New Year Honours.

This is a truly wonderful chance to hear what a real expert thinks, not just a politician.

The lecture begins at 6.30pm. Tickets are priced at £15. However for senior citizens and for all tickets bought and paid for by Saturday, December 18 , the price is just £10. Sixth formers accompanied by adults pay just £5.

Please contact the geoffreyjnsmart@gmail.com if you wish to buy a ticket. If the lecture is cancelled or postponed because of Covid restrictions, ticket prices will be refunded or credited to future lectures.

Geoffrey Smart is the Chair of the Norfolk Cambridge Society, the alumni organisation for Cambridge graduates living in Norfolk. The Norfolk Cambridge Society lectures are held quarterly and were set up to celebrate the rigorous pursuit and dissemination of truth by leading academics.

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