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Dec 9, 2021 | by Nancy Hey

Levelling up life in the UK

In this blog, the Centre’s Executive Director, Nancy Hey outlines what we know about the drivers of wellbeing on a national, regional and individual level – and what we think the government should focus on in order to truly ‘level up’ life in the UK.

The Budget and Spending Review sets out plans to build back better and support the economic recovery. At the heart of these plans is the government’s ambition to level up the country by tackling long standing regional inequalities, and ensure the economic recovery is felt across the UK. There are regional inequalities in wages, life satisfaction and productivity [……] Within the nations and regions of the UK, London and the South East are the only two places with productivity above the UK average.

Autumn Budget & Spending Review 2021 1.26

Levelling up is, I think, about: 

  • Reducing disparities in and within regions and improving material conditions including income, jobs and housing, which should also help strengthen overall national outcomes.
  • Recognising that the traditional metrics of national success and progress tell only part of the story. Focusing on a ‘quality of life’ that makes a difference to our individual and collective wellbeing will involve looking at social, environmental and mental conditions, as well as economic and human capital.

How can we level up life satisfaction and reduce misery?

For a nation to be sustainable and strong, the economic policies that support it need to be inclusive and comprehensive. Misery increases discontent, ambivalence and illness. It affects our individual and collective performance and resilience, as well as the strength of our collective decision-making and our national security.

National averages can, and do, mask substantial distributional variation and nuance in the experience of life. Wellbeing inequality – the variation in levels of wellbeing in a particular place – captures the real-life experience of inequality better than many other metrics as they pick up economic, health and relational impacts together. It helps us to see the hidden happiness gap, mapping misery and despair. It also helps us see where lives are good, and understand what supports and sustains us over time. 

In order to ‘level up’ life satisfaction, we need to:

  • Have an aim of sustainable overall social progress.
  • Focus on outcomes that matter to people’s lives at an national average level, but also between and within regions.
  • Measure these outcomes, – both objectively and subjectively – our progress towards them and their sustainability over time, openly, as a shared evidence base.

One option is a regular independent and authoritative analysis of how people and places are doing across the UK, along with a short and long term analysis of risk and costs covering economic, social and environmental progress across all sectors. 

What do we already know about the drivers of wellbeing?

At an individual level we need to feel safe, loved and fulfilled – to feel good and function well. This is reflected in the adult drivers of life satisfaction and of our feeling that what we do in life is worthwhile, which are:

  1. Mental and physical health 
  2. Partner relationships and family 
  3. Employment

At a regional level, the main wellbeing inequality drivers are: 

  1. Unemployment rates 
  2. Governance, which is how people view the quality of society, its functioning and its institutions. Good governance for high wellbeing nations and organisations looks likely to be those that are competent, fair and caring.   

At a local area level wellbeing inequality in Great Britain in 2017 has been mapped and its drivers, from the available data, looked to be:

1. Deprivation, median income and unemployment are all associated with higher wellbeing inequality at the local authority level.

  • Improving educational attainment for all and supporting access to good quality work for the 500,000 young people a year who don’t immediately go on to further or higher education seems key. 
  • Job quality and job satisfaction might be part of this variation as we find regional differences and that many occupations have the potential for high job quality.

2. Although more rural areas have higher average wellbeing, this does not translate into lower wellbeing inequality as might be expected. Our analysis indicates that this might be due to higher impacts of unemployment in rural areas.

3. Higher levels of engagement in heritage activities and the use of green space for health or exercise is associated with lower wellbeing inequality in local authorities, even though increased engagement in these activities is not associated with improved average wellbeing.

4. Higher female, but not male, life expectancy in local authority populations is associated with lower wellbeing inequality. This particularly relates to the North East of England. 

At a national level, the drivers of high wellbeing nations are:

  1. GDP 
  2. Having someone to rely on in times of trouble 
  3. Healthy life expectancy 
  4. Control: freedom to choose what you do in your life 
  5. Giving: people giving to charity 
  6. Trust and fairness: absence of corruption in business and government.

What should ‘levelling up’ focus on?

There have been enormous improvements in the length and quality of life and living standards over the last 75 years, and it is clear that improving regional GDP, incomes and health disparities remains important.  Also important will be public services such as transport, healthcare, public safety, availability of quality jobs and affordable housing. These will continue to be important generators of quality of life and of fairer life chances.

 What matters will vary by place and population, but they are likely to include: 

  • Levelling up on mental health care delivery and research at the same rate as the progress we’ve seen on some physical health conditions over the last 30 years. Including improving the quality of life for people with long term, fluctuating and terminal mental and physical health conditions. 
  • Increasing quality of our day-to-day life with more shared positive emotions, purpose, the quality and quantity of our leisure and non-paid work time and commute and our ability to keep learning and deal with change.
  • Improving the quality of our relationships, including tacking loneliness. This involves understanding the importance of strong close personal relationships with family and friends, of belonging to our neighbourhood, of how we get to know and get on with people unlike ourselves and how we work together collectively with shared social norms, citizenship – like volunteering – and strong civil society.
  • Our agency and control, that supports optimism at both individual and community level. Wellbeing is feeling good and functioning well; being able to do the things that we want and need, think clearly, set goals and achieve them, tackling problems rather than avoiding them, and working hard together on things that matter with others and make a difference. 
  • Shifting to prevention and investment in capitals; actively supporting and renewing the activities and institutions that keep us, our communities and organisations well and resilient. 

During the pandemic we saw the roller coaster impact on people’s lives of rapid change and the fear, anxiety and lack of control it can cause. Significant societal change can increase the feelings in those who are already feeling ignored, left behind, not recognised or valued – that no one notices or cares about you or that people like you. 

Levelling up life satisfaction and reducing wellbeing inequality is more important than ever. We need to actively grow our ability to notice, plan for and respond to impacts that will continue to be felt across the whole population.

How can we put wellbeing at the heart of policy?

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How can we put wellbeing at the heart of policy?

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