coyle23_Christopher FurlongGetty Images_UKlevellingup Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

How to Level Up

The UK government’s recent White Paper on tackling geographic inequalities seemingly has little in common with its own prior economic strategies. But by focusing on different types of local capital and the coordination of activity through 12 “missions,” the document nonetheless represents a milestone.

CAMBRIDGE – The recent publication of the UK government’s Leveling Up White Paper is a significant event. This is not because its bold promise to “level up” the poorer parts of the United Kingdom might deflect attention from the ongoing political crisis surrounding Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Nor is the White Paper especially noteworthy for making redress of historic inequalities the central policy ambition of Johnson’s government. Rather, the significance of the 332-page document lies in its analysis of the problem itself.

As the White Paper notes, successive UK governments have introduced policies to target regional inequalities since the 1920s. The subsequent economic depression accelerated the decline of the nineteenth-century industrial cities of northern England, Scotland, and Wales, and the fortunes of people living in different parts of the country started to diverge significantly.

While the White Paper divides the century-long history of UK regional policy into six neat phases, previous governments have made many attempts to tackle geographic disparities. In fact, there have been too many, characterized by frequent policy reversals, lack of coordination, and failure to learn from experience.