At the weekend, Michael Gove set out his plans to end the gap between rich and poor, but he failed to acknowledge the deep inequalities in London and said nothing about fair funding for local authorities struggling to run basic local services. That’s not “levelling up”. That’s failing to do the bare minimum.
The country needs London, just as London needs the rest of country. The capital plays a vital part in Britain’s global ambitions and it generates £36 billion a year for the Treasury, which helps fund infrastructure and public services everywhere else. But that should not be used as a smoke screen for leaving London out of the levelling up agenda.
For the whole country to succeed London’s inequalities need to be acknowledged from the start. The reality is that many parts of the city are in a generational poverty crisis. As you head east on the District Line, life expectancy drops by a year at every stop all the way to Barking.
Ever-increasing rents, cuts to universal credit – which reduces support for those looking for work and in low-paid jobs – and spiralling food bills, together with expensive fuel and stagnant wages, have marginalised many Londoners. With inflation at its highest level for 30 years, many face a cost-of-living crisis on a scale last seen by their grandparents.
In Barking & Dagenham we have the highest rate of unemployment in the country and one of the highest rates of child poverty. One in four residents are in debt, owing £9 million in interest payments. Before the pandemic 13,000 qualified for universal credit. By May 2021 that figure had risen to 33,000.
As well as being leader of Barking & Dagenham Council and deputy leader of cross-party group London Councils I chair an organisation called Local London, which is made up of eight boroughs in outer east and north east London. They have a combined population larger than Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool combined, yet their gross value added measure, which quantifies an area’s wages and productivity, is much lower.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest report on poverty cites London as having the highest rate in the UK, with one in four households affected when housing costs are considered. This increases to nearly four in 10 for BME households. Child poverty rates in Newham (50 per cent) and Barking & Dagenham (48 per cent) far exceed the national average, and London has the highest rate of in-work poverty in the country, with one in five households experiencing it.
This shows there is a significant levelling up job to be done within London, not only “up north”. Gove can talk about “metropolitan condescension” as much as he likes, but he’s a key player in a government that knows nothing of hard work and nothing about the aspirations of working people in our city.
The everyday story for many children in London is one of going hungry and being cold because there is little food in the house or money to pay the gas and electric. Having a computer for doing their homework on remains a distant dream.
Local authority leaders like me are not interested in culture wars. We see our communities going without and want to make a difference. We want to bring an end to the austerity of the last few years, narrow the gap between rich and poor and make everyone better off. But that starts with national government in general and Gove in particular recognising that London has problems as well.
Darren Rodwell is leader of Barking & Dagenham Council. Follow Darren on Twitter.
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