Five years ago, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson made ‘levelling up’ a central plank of the Conservative Party’s bid for re-election, with a manifesto pledge to ‘level up every part of the UK’. In 2022, the government published a thorough and ambitious White Paper setting out 12 levelling up ‘missions’ to achieve by 2030, as well as specific metrics by which they would be measured.

In this report, the IFS examines early progress towards those 12 missions, where possible using the headline metrics identified in the White Paper.

Key findings

1. The Levelling Up White Paper presents an admirably clear, ambitious and transparent account of the Conservative government’s aims to reduce regional inequalities in the UK. Most of these missions target absolute progress (improving the UK’s overall performance) as well as relative progress towards closing the gaps between areas. There is much careful work here that should usefully inform the thinking of a future government committed to these areas. 

2. The last five years have clearly been a challenging time for levelling up. The COVID-19 pandemic caused massive disruption to virtually every area of life, and increased many different dimensions of inequality. While the levelling up missions were published in February 2022, after the worst of the pandemic was past, this was still before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting consequences that has had for inflation and the wider economy. 

3. Overall, progress towards levelling up has been glacial – and, on many metrics, the UK as a whole has gone into reverse. The share of pupils in England meeting the expected standards at the end of primary school has fallen from 65% in 2018–19 to 60% in June 2023. The total number of further education and skills courses completed fell by 14%, driven by a more than 20% fall in the lowest-skilled areas. Outside of the pandemic years, average life satisfaction is the lowest it has been since 2012. There is a 21-percentage-point gap in the average employment rate between the best- and worst-performing tenth of local authorities – the widest it has been since at least 2005. How do the last five years measure up on levelling up? 

4. There are a small number of bright spots. Digital connectivity has increased quickly: between April 2023 and January 2024, the share of premises outside London covered by 5G rose from 67% to 78%. Pride in one’s local area increased between 2019 and 2021, including a 4-percentage-point rise in the North West (where pride in place was lowest). 

5. In many policy areas, there has been – perhaps unsurprisingly – relatively limited progress towards the levelling up missions. It is still early days, some of these changes will take time, and in many cases data are only available with a substantial lag. But the missions relate to 2030, which is not that far off. The slow pace of change speaks to the challenges of shifting deep-seated geographic inequalities, and the importance of a long-term strategy with consistent delivery if progress is to be made.