February 8, 2022

Levelling up: policy frameworks for collective wellbeing

by Pippa Coutts, Carnegie UK

Levelling up is never going to be one size fits all. To support the development of areas that currently have poorer economic and social outcomes, we need to recognise their unique assets as well as their unique challenges. Along with others, we have consistently called for power and resources to be devolved from national governments to citizens, communities and local level government.

And so, it is good to see a commitment in the Levelling Up White Paper to devolve powers to metro and county mayors and support to City and Growth deal areas in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We know that the type of local, transparent decision-making envisioned in the White Paper promotes the wellbeing of societies, communities and individuals.[1]

But for this to move off the page and make a real difference, it needs to be accompanied by a new policy framework which allows local and devolved governments to consider people’s lives in the round rather than restricting their focus on narrow, often economic, measures.

The White Paper recognises that our individual wellbeing and our communities’ wellbeing are affected by determinants such as access to good jobs and educational opportunities[2]. But we don’t think it goes far enough. The concept of wellbeing in the White Paper is tightly aligned to personal wellbeing, assessed predominantly through life satisfaction data.

A relatively narrow focus on life satisfaction runs the risks of important threats to, and opportunities for, wellbeing being overlooked across the UK. A stark example of this is the lack of detailed consideration in the White Paper of how ‘levelling up’ will address the climate and nature crises, particularly the threats to a sustainable future for towns and cities from not achieving net zero and not taking opportunities to build a greener economy.

When people are asked what matters to them, they often talk about a good quality local environment. We found this recently working with the North of Tyne Combined Authority. Last month, the Combined Authority committed to putting wellbeing at the heart of decision-making. Working through ‘A Roundtable on Wellbeing’, the combined authority worked with local people to develop their own wellbeing vision and outcomes. These include the ‘capitals’ that are part of levelling up, like social and physical capital, but they also include tackling the climate crisis, upholding our human rights and having a voice in decision-making.

The wellbeing framework in North of Tyne was based on evidence from communities about what’s necessary to ensure everyone has what they need to live well locally, now and in the future. At the same time, at a national level, a Future Generations Bill is progressing through Parliament which seeks to embed long-term thinking in national policy making.

Supporting the development of collective wellbeing frameworks at regional and local level would help local decision makers to balance short-term needs with the need to safeguard the wellbeing of future generations – ensuring that taking actions now will not have negative effects in the long term, particularly important when considering meeting climate goals.

This is a challenge for levelling up: to transform the sweep of the missions into locally relevant actions. As the White Paper recognises, to make a difference we must change the system and avoid the mistakes of the past. If we want to level up collective wellbeing, people need to see a chance to develop the uniqueness of the places where they live: not just to satisfy their own needs but those of the whole community: not just for today, but for our future generations.

[1] For the full list of factors Carnegie UK views as key to promoting (and hindering) wellbeing, see the wellbeing tests in the Carnegie UK Strategy for Change, 2021.

[2] In the discussion on how to achieve one of the four missions, Boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, it states that these actions will help achieve the ‘overarching ambition to improve well-being in every area of the UK’ (Mission 8), p12 Executive Summary.