Worsening health outcomes, a rise in violent crime and deteriorating conditions for local enterprise are undermining prosperity across the UK, according to the Legatum Institute, which has developed an index to help track progress against the government’s broad goal of “levelling up”.
The centre-right think-tank said its composite measure, published for the first time on Thursday, would help policymakers set priorities to drive improvements in left-behind towns and regions. It has scored each region and local authority against 12 “pillars” of prosperity, ranging from personal freedom and governance to enterprise conditions, health, education and the environment.
The initiative comes as the government seeks to define its sprawling levelling up agenda, with the appointment of the Tory MP Neil O’Brien as No 10 adviser intended to add substance to the slogan. Measures announced in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech — framed as a programme to “level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom” — ranged from the creation of freeports to a new push to strengthen access to skills and training.
“The whole national conversation is about levelling up, but we don’t have a way currently to track what is happening,” said Matthew Goodwin, director of the Legatum Institute’s Centre for UK Prosperity, adding that the index was designed “to provide a sense of progress” and allow people to hold the government to account.
The index suggests the UK’s overall prosperity has stagnated since the middle of the 2010s, with a small decline in every region since 2018, the Legatum Institute said — despite improvements in areas such as infrastructure, educational achievement and in cutting carbon emissions.
These gains had been undermined by backsliding on other measures. In particular, many areas were struggling to contain a rise in violent crime; while both physical and mental health had worsened in all regions; and many businesses reported worsening skills shortages.
The Legatum Institute said the quality of local governance had also declined over time, with fewer people voting in local elections and a collapse in political choice, measured by the lack of change in overall political control in a growing proportion of local authorities.
“Much of this is missed in a levelling up debate that focuses narrowly on ‘bridges and trains’,” the think-tank said, adding that the distinctions routinely made between the north and south, or between cities and towns, were too simplistic. Although prosperity was concentrated in the south of England, it said, there were big variations within regions, and different strengths in each.
It has sorted local areas into 17 “archetypes” of prosperity, each facing different challenges. In commuter belt areas, the most prosperous, there were still weaknesses such as poor air quality. In coastal towns, poor health and educational outcomes were offset by strong family relationships, while industrial areas had high rates of poverty but scored relatively well for infrastructure.
“Indices are most useful at highlighting which areas have some aspect of policy going right and other areas can learn from that,” Goodwin said.