Levelling Up: The North v South argument overlooks some of the most deprived areas in the UK

Mark Perry, Chief Executive at VIVID

Mark Perry, the Chief Executive at housing provider VIVID, explores why the Levelling up paper needs to be revised as it overlooks some of the most deprived areas in the UK.

The rising cost-of-living is heavily impacting a significant proportion of people and businesses in our country and economic inequalities are becoming even more apparent. Nearly a third of UK businesses have needed additional financial support, with a further 34% admitting to taking on more debt in order to survive – and this is set to get worse.

With inequalities widening, the government’s Levelling Up agenda has become less of an ideal and more a necessity. The agenda aims to tackle regional disparities across the UK. But so far, the narrative has focused on the differences in prosperity between the North and South of England.

With the cost-of-living crisis exasperating economic inequalities across every part of the country, we need to ensure the Levelling Up agenda addresses the wealth imbalances within regions, rather than between regions, to allow people and businesses within them to thrive.

The importance of affordable housing in ‘levelling up’ regions

The Levelling Up agenda has so far broadly focused around increasing job opportunities in the North of England to ‘balance’ with what the agenda suggests is a surplus of opportunities available in the South – and, in turn, helping the North to prosper.

Whilst these opportunities are crucial for supporting local economies and communities, the Levelling Up agenda must focus on meeting people’s basic needs and building the foundations for them to flourish. Most take housing for granted but when you have a home, you can have a bank account, hold down a job and have a safe place to turn to when life gets tough. A home is the ultimate springboard for people to achieve what they want in life and this directly impacts the prosperity in communities, which is also acknowledged by the government’s whitepaper.

But there is a huge shortage of affordable homes across the country – so many people are forced to take what they can afford even if it’s damp, cramped or away from support networks. Currently, the National Housing Federation estimates that 145,000 social rent houses need building every year for the next decade, to meet the country’s housing demands. The ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government confirmed just 57,600 affordable homes were completed between April 2019 and March 2020, showing a gap in affordable housing which needs to be addressed.

So, the Levelling Up agenda needs to focus on addressing the lack of affordable housing across all regions in the UK to really level up the country – not just the North and South.

The “prosperity” myth of the South

The focus on such a stark North v South divide has led to the perception that the South is home to great wealth and prosperity. While affluent areas are evident across regions, so too are areas stricken by poverty. The South of England is home to the most extreme wealth gaps in the country, with the likes of Winchester, a wealthy region in the South of England, situated next to cities like Portsmouth and Southampton, which rank as two of the most economically deprived areas in the region, according to the English Indices of Deprivation.

The perception of widespread wealth in the South has arguably limited the level of support and investment some regions receive, with a recent APPG inquiry on the rural economy highlighting how the government’s lack of investment in rural regions is “failing those living and working in the countryside”.

As the cost of living worsens, these wealth gaps in the South will become even more apparent. Notably, it will be the people in the South, who already face higher living costs, that will need more affordable housing than ever before.

It will be this shortfall in affordable, quality homes that will further highlight the need for an economical levelling strategy that targets all regions. Without safe, quality, affordable housing, how can we flourish as individuals and businesses?

The role housing associations can play

Housing associations play a vital role in their communities – providing affordable homes where they are most needed and supporting customers through challenging times. The sector is in a prime position to work closely with the government and businesses to highlight areas of deprivation and the support needed.

At VIVID, we operate across Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey and West Sussex – a region with considerable wealth disparity as touched upon above. We keep our geography close-knit, so we maintain good knowledge and relationships in our area to ensure we’re targeting areas most in need of affordable homes and support to make the biggest difference where it’s needed the most.

The Levelling Up process should no longer be centred around geography and just the inequalities in the North of England – it should be focused on the deprivation that exists across the country, starting with giving people who need them a place to call home. That way people and communities can level up and thrive.