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February 11, 2022

Why access to good work must be central to the Levelling Up agenda

Director, Anna Thomas, reviews the recently published Levelling Up White Paper in the light of new research from the latest edition of the Institute's Good Work Time Series, which tracks trends in good work across local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland.

The UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper, published last week, has many ambitions in line with those of the Institute for the Future of Work (the Institute), namely: to see everyone, wherever they live and whatever their background, to develop their capabilities in ways that will enable them to flourish as human beings.

Central to this development is work. In the words of Professor Sir Angus Deaton :

‘Work is absolutely central to wellbeing, dignity and for communities…if work is threatened, we threaten the fundamental components of wellbeing'. 

At the Institute, we’re pleased to see the White Paper acknowledges that the extent to which people across the UK can lead ‘happy and fulfilling lives’ is affected by many things, including physical and mental health, jobs and community relationships.

This acknowledgment points to an implied, future policy agenda borne out of one of the cruelest lessons of the pandemic: the stubborn and growing intersectional inequalities that have hit our key and most vulnerable workers most sharply. This has rightly resulted in a reassessment of what is of real ‘value’ to people and society, and brought a keener awareness of our inter-dependence and shared interests.

A reassessment like this also challenges the foundations and assumptions we have about meritocracy and efficiency (as the Secretary of State has said himself) and edges us towards a politics of the ‘common good’ – one that recognises what really produces and reproduces our social and economic vitality (as Michael Sandel discusses with Jon Cruddas here). 

It also leads us to work, or more specifically to good work. Our research helps demonstrate empirically what philosophers of the commons good have theorised: good work is core to health, community cohesion, and is the foundation of the modern moral economy.  

However, while the White Paper does consider some aspects of better work with an emphasis on improved pay, as well as employment (in Mission 1), and skills (in Mission 6), it falls short of capturing all of the dimensions of good work as set out in our Good Work Charter. It misses the opportunity to knit its missions and objectives together through building a future of good work across the country. Achieving this should be at the heart of the plan.

As highlighted in our recent Good Work Time Series, there are positive synergies between employment and several key dimensions of good work: in addition to fair pay, we can add autonomy, work status, conditions and satisfactory hours. It is unsurprising then that access to good jobs will determine future prospects for people and places across the country more than any other single factor.

Access to ‘good work’ will be the ‘core challenge’ of levelling up, as it is defined.

Also at the core must be a recognition of the impact of technological transformation on people and communities. The Institute’s own research suggests that this disruption is likely to precipitate dramatic and uneven impacts on the nature and quality of work, as well as both access to, and the number of available jobs across the country.

These must be now examined as a priority. Our Pissarides Review into the Future of Work and Wellbeing – a new three-year research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation – will focus specifically on examining the impacts of technological disruption on people and communities across the UK. We will be officially launching this work next month, but for now we make the following recommendations to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) which we believe will be vital if they are to achieve their stated ambition of supporting people across the UK to live happy and fulfilling lives: 

1.    Develop a Future of Work Strategy with local and regional partners

To complement the White Paper and ensure that good work is recognised as central, the Levelling Up Office must initiate a Future of Work Strategy (‘Work 5.00’) co-developed with local and regional partners. Working across government, this will enable local government, armed with new powers, to invest and build the conditions for good work strategically, with longer term objectives in mind. Making good work a central feature of any levelling up strategy and the advisory council would be a fair second best.

Pending receipt of additional funding, the LUHC will need to deploy other policy levers, including the integration of good work standards and measures beyond the GDP, and the Employment Bill, and ensuring that the Health Disparities White Paper features work as a major strand.

2.    Align technology policy with the Levelling Up missions

The White Paper offers a sound analysis of the dynamics of globalisation and technological progress – a history of industrial revolutions as destructive as they were ‘creative’. But while there is an acknowledgement of the potential contribution of such ‘progress’ to widening geographic inequalities, this is not followed through with policy responses.

Technology does not have an innate destiny, nor is it designed or deployed in a vacuum. Our analyses show that ‘good’ automation and the creation of ‘good’ jobs isn’t happening ‘organically’. So we need to be proactive in shaping it.

To get the best out of technological innovation and ensure that it works for everyone, the Government must not shy from a robust, global gold standard in AI regulation that requires responsible behaviour from the earliest possible stage of design and deployment (see our proposals here). A new innovation challenge, supported by the UKRI, to support human-centred automation would also help.

3.    Promote local pilots and peer learning 

The Government is right to recognise the role of local authorities and devolved administrations in levelling up. This will enable tailored interventions in response to local strengths and challenges. Our Good Work Time Series highlights distinct good work communities – which are not always adjacent or in combined authorities – face bespoke labour market challenges. This is driving differentiated wellbeing outcomes.

However, how much can be done without having to request central government’s permission to act is not yet clear, and the ‘devolution revolution’ is limited to England, excluding many areas most in need, including those right across West Wales, which consistently underperforms in most dimensions of the Good Work Monitor.

What seems likely is that more devolution of fiscal and non-fiscal powers will be needed to empower our ‘undervalued communities’ to become public policy innovators. There is still a lot that we don’t know, and experimentation, pilots and shared learning at a local level are all going to prove important. We’ve proposed that local authorities facing similar challenges could club together in ‘compacts’ to request additional powers and funding for this purpose.

In conclusion, the White Paper comes late but its potential should not be underestimated.

A sharper focus on creating and protecting good work is the best – and perhaps the only – way to make a success of the levelling up agenda, and one which represents a huge economic and political prize.


Anna Thomas


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