Britain must take this chance to make wellbeing a priority again

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The writer is chief economist at the Social Market Foundation

David Cameron’s government may long since have been consumed by the rancorous projects of austerity and Brexit, but some legacies of his earlier efforts to create a softer, more compassionate conservatism remain. Among them is Britain’s rigorous measurement of its citizens’ wellbeing. Its Office for National Statistics routinely tracks how happy, anxious, purposeful and satisfied with their lives people in each part of the country are.

Back in 2010, Cameron’s stated vision was that this data would “make sure those government decisions on policy and spending are made in a balanced way, taking account of what really matters”. That ideal has not yet materialised in Westminster, and in the meantime, other governments have been more enthusiastic about making wellbeing an explicit public policy goal (though they tend to favour a broader, more “holistic”, set of indicators over the ONS’s subjective measures).

In 2015, the devolved Scottish government passed into law its National Performance Framework. That same year, the Welsh government’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act also came into force, creating a statutory duty on public bodies to maximise their contribution to the country’s wellbeing goals. Most prominently, in 2019 New Zealand’s government renamed their annual fiscal plan the “Wellbeing Budget”, with prime minister Jacinda Ardern writing of her hope to “provide a model which others in turn might look to”.

The positioning of wellbeing at the heart of Boris Johnson’s flagship “levelling up” agenda suggests the UK might be returning to a position of global leadership on wellbeing policy. Yet with levelling up conspicuous by its absence from the ongoing contest to replace Johnson as prime minister, the future of such policy remains deeply uncertain.

The next leader will inherit the levelling up and regeneration bill, currently passing through parliament, which requires the government to set out and track a set of “missions”. Twelve have been proposed, among them a commitment to ensuring that “by 2030, wellbeing will have improved in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing”. This aim is listed as one of two overarching missions in February’s levelling up white paper, alongside the goal of raising and reducing disparities in living standards. 

If the incoming administration’s commitment to levelling up is in question, the awkward fit between the government’s strategy and its wellbeing mission places the latter in particular peril. Levelling up has generally been presented as a way of boosting poorer and provincial parts of the country, perceived to have been neglected in favour of London. Yet while some of the places with the lowest subjective wellbeing fit the stereotype of “left behind” areas — for example, coastal communities such as Blackpool and Thanet — they are accompanied by some of the richest parts of the country. The central London boroughs of Islington, Camden, Southwark and Hackney all rank in the bottom ten local authorities for subjective wellbeing.

To some extent, that probably reflects the relatively high rates of poverty that exist alongside affluence in those areas. Yet it does not seem to be the case that London’s wellbeing scores are being dragged down by a deprived minority — the gap between the happiest and unhappiest in London is comparable with the rest of the country. The prominence of other cities (notably Sheffield, Bristol and Liverpool) near the bottom of the wellbeing rankings suggests that some of the pathologies of urban living — expensive and lower quality housing, crime and social dislocation — may also be part of the explanation.

These are educated guesses. The question of why London and other cities are faring so poorly deserves deeper exploration. However that requires the government to pay more, not less, attention to its metropolitan citizens — something that seems to go against the very spirit of levelling up in its current framing.

The worry is that the new government will ignore or play down wellbeing if it contradicts their presumptions and narratives. The hope is that it will take up the challenge, and work to understand what is required to “psychologically level up” London and other cities, as well as trying to “economically level up” the rest of the country. A window of opportunity has emerged for the government to put wellbeing at the heart of policymaking. They should make the most of their chance.

 

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