We have now received the highly anticipated Levelling Up white paper, which will set out how the government will level up those parts of the country left behind. What does this mean, and how will it tackle the issue of geographic differences in life expectancy across the UK?
The phrase used by politicians to refer to the process of fixing this issue is ‘levelling up.’ Behind the rhetoric are very real issues severely impacting people’s lives.
What does levelling up mean?
The House of Commons Library defines a left-behind area as somewhere with “low pay and employment” that leads to “low standards of living.” As a result of these factors, the health of a region may also be impacted due to unemployment and socio-economic issues. In short, levelling up should remove differences in life expectancy nationwide, no matter where people live.
According to the Office For National Statistics, there are “sizeable regional differences” in life expectancy, “including a three-year gap between the North East (77.6 years) and the South East (80.6 years). For Females, country and regional differences were smaller.”
This is something that impacts the UK economy directly. The Guardian reported “England’s ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods cost the country almost £30bn a year because people are often too ill to work and die earlier.” The geographical disparities between rich and poor in the UK can be seen in the regional contributions to the UK economy.
According to data collected when the Conservative Party’s plans to level up the country were introduced in 2019, London and the South-East contributed to over half of the UK’s GDP.
GDP and life expectancy
A greater life expectancy comes with a higher income. It is widely known that living in poverty is bad for a person’s health. Of course, you might find yourself asking what this has to do with the plans of levelling up?
According to Jo Bibby of the Health Foundation, the “progress of the nation’s health depends upon a fundamental shift from viewing health as just the business of the NHS. A healthier and fairer society needs secure jobs, good pay, decent housing, and high-quality education.”
Health and wealth come together in the UK. This can be seen in the geographical differences in the quality of health in the UK shown in the following map.
As well as being one of the largest contributors to the UK economy, the South East of England is also one of the healthiest places to live. The areas on the map were ranked according to data from the Office For National Statistics in partnership with LSP, published in the Evening Standard. Health was classified according to dementia, cancer, alcohol misuse and adult obesity.
Healthiest (purple) and unhealthiest (red) areas of the UK. Credit: Ollie Cox.
How does the Levelling Up white paper propose to tackle these issues?
The Levelling Up white paper does not discuss many of the issues relating to geographical disparities between regions. However, obesity is mentioned.
According to the white paper, the government will “act now to deal with one of the biggest contributors to ill health: poor diet and obesity.” They have announced that they will take forward recommendations from Henry Dimbleby’s independent review towards a National Food Strategy including piloting Community Eatwell and a school cooking revolution.
The government has announced that “the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will increase National Institute for Health Research investment outside of London, Oxford and Cambridge.”
However, as the data shows, there are enormous gaps in the quality of health across the UK.
Jo Bibby, Director of Health at the Health Foundation, believes that the targets and goals set by the government in this paper to close the gap in life expectancy across the UK are “Extremely ambitious.” She also stated: “Government policy must now … create the social and economic conditions needed to give everyone in the country the opportunity to live a healthy life.”
While the Levelling Up white paper has set out plans to tackle obesity, we are still awaiting a separate white paper from the Department of Health and Social Care that will set out to tackle the core drivers of disparities in health outcomes. It is set to be published soon and will provide more information on the government’s plans to level up the health of the country.