New index reveals levelling-up priorities across 379 local authorities

The Legatum Institute has published a brand-new UK Prosperity Index report, which while endorsing the Government's 'levelling-up' agenda and highlighting that economic fundamentals are strong or improving, calls for a 'reset moment' in the public sector's approach to inequality.

Using 256 indicators based on the latest available data (predominantly from before Covid-19 struck) to provide a comprehensive assessment of institutional, economic, and social wellbeing across the country’s 379 local authorities, the Index argues that crude distinctions between ‘north and south’ or ‘cities and small towns’ gloss over the considerable variation that exists both between and within regions and fails to highlight the success stories where we see considerable increases in prosperity.

Prof Matthew Goodwin Legatum Institute“This Index is the most ambitious and comprehensive assessment of prosperity across the country to date. With detailed data on all boroughs and council areas across the four nations of the UK, it shows that we also need to invest in areas such as safety and security, health, enterprise conditions, and family and community life if we are to see all citizens, neighbourhoods, and communities reach their full potential,” said Professor Matthew Goodwin, Director of the Legatum Institute’s Centre for UK Prosperity.

“This is why, while we support the focus on levelling-up regions that have historically been left behind, we believe that the Government can be bolder,” he asserted. “We need to do more than just level-up left behind areas to the status-quo. We should be much more ambitious and aim to reach entirely new heights by creating the conditions that will put all regions and communities into the fast lane toward greater and long-lasting prosperity.”


Key findings

The Index highlights the considerable variation in prosperity between and within regions:

  • The most prosperous regions of the UK are the South East, South West, and East of England.
  • The most prosperous local authorities are concentrated in the South East: Wokingham, Waverley, Elmbridge, Epsom and Ewell, and Woking.
  • The least prosperous regions are Greater Manchester, West Midlands (Metropolitan), and Yorkshire and The Humber.
  • The least prosperous local authorities are distributed across the north of England (Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Oldham) and Scotland (Glasgow City and West Dunbartonshire).

The report also identifies 17 distinctive archetypes of areas that each have their own challenges, opportunities, and examples of best practice.

Of these, the Commuter Belt around London, Rural England, Outer London, and Mid-Sized Urban Hubs are the most prosperous, while Post-Industrial Urban areas, the Welsh Valleys, Scotland’s Central-Belt, and the Industrial Heartlands are the least prosperous. To be most effective, the levelling-up agenda will need to be tailored to the particular circumstances of these different archetypes.

At a national level the Index highlights that the UK is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, ranking 13th out of 167 nations. It benefits from one of the best education systems globally, an increasingly high quality natural environment, and a strong and open economy that has seen significant improvements in the quality of infrastructure, labour force engagement, and competitiveness.

The Index shows that:

  • The country has seen a significant improvement in education, with all regions experiencing improvements in outcomes at secondary level and in the skill levels of the adult population.
  • The UK’s natural environment has improved, with reductions in emissions – including decreases in CO2 emissions from industry, commercial sources, and transport – as well as reduced exposure to air pollution, an increase in the number of tress being planted, and a larger proportion of waste being recycled.
  • The country has enjoyed increasing, albeit low, GDP growth and historically low unemployment – with the rate of unemployment nearly halving in the decade before the pandemic, from 7.7% to 3.9%.
  • The UK has continued to improve its infrastructure, especially transport and communications, with average internet download speeds rising nine-fold from 8 Mbps to 72 Mbps over the last decade.

However, the Index also reveals that the country’s prosperity is currently being undermined by a deterioration in aspects that lie outside of the traditional focus on GDP, infrastructure, and transport. These include the safety and security of local communities, people’s physical and mental health, conditions for local enterprise, key aspects of social capital, and, to a lesser extent, the effectiveness of local governance.

It suggests that:

  • The nation’s safety and security has deteriorated over the last decade, including in 13 out of 15 regions and three quarters of all local authorities. There have been significant increases in violent crime, including homicides, sexual offences, and the frequency of terrorist attacks, and civil disorder has worsened, with increasing rates of weapon possession and public order offences.
  • Health has deteriorated across all regions of the UK over the last decade. There has been a significant decline in the number of care home beds and in the percentage of people that are admitted, discharged, or treated within four hours of attending A%E. In addition, there has been an increase in the prevalence of depression (up by 66%), cancer (up by 52%), and dementia (up by 40%).
  • There has been a marked deterioration in the quality of local conditions for businesses, entrepreneurs, and investors since 2011. Many businesses report severe skills shortages and barriers to doing business. Things that help to drive enterprise, like flexible local labour markets, are also deteriorating.
  • Key aspects of social capital are deteriorating. The strength of families appears to be weakening, with rising numbers of looked after children and children on protection plans, as well as a slight decline in the number of times a week that families each together. In the 10 years prior to the pandemic, there was a decline in the strength of people’s social networks and a fall in institutional trust.
  • The quality of local governance has declined in the UK over the last decade, largely due to reductions in local election turnout and the collapse of political choice. The number of local authorities that have not seen any change in the ruling party over the last 20 years increased from 42 a decade ago to 66 today.


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