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The levelling-up agenda has failed young people

Nine in ten under-25s consider being able to afford food aspirational – the government must start involving them in its policymaking.

By Shirine Khoury-Haq

As the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill passes through its final stages in the House of Lords, I’m particularly interested in its provision for the social mobility of young people.

Throughout the conceptual development of levelling up, we’ve seen policymakers take a top-down approach – policy designed in Whitehall, with communities identified only when policy is ready for implementation.

This is an acknowledgement that policy is too late to solve the problems. Often, it presents local authorities with funding to spend how they see best – without guidance or thought given on how to best help different communities and groups. The 12 new investment zones, while a step in the right direction for community-based policy, make that all too clear.

That is perhaps why levelling up has not resonated well with voters – particularly in Red Wall seats, where the government has promised the most change.

While the £560m National Youth Guarantee included in last year’s Levelling Up white paper will be helpful, failing to engage young people in the policy design is a misstep that will likely blunt its impact.

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To deliver the 12 missions of levelling up and create meaningful, long-lasting improvements in the opportunities available for young people, we need to flip policymaking on its head. It’s time we take the lead from those closest to the issues we face in society, rather than relying on Westminster to develop solutions.

The gap should be bridged by businesses and the third sector working collaboratively. To begin to better understand the opportunities available to young people, their aspirations and life chances, the Co-op and the children’s charity Barnardo’s surveyed 5,000 respondents aged between ten and 25.

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Our study made some shocking discoveries – “having enough money to pay for food” has become an aspiration for 89 per cent of young people, overtaking traditional goals such as “achieving their dream job” (85 per cent) or “buying a house” (83 per cent). Equally alarming, more than a third (35 per cent) of young people have accessed food support. 

Whitehall policymakers and businesses agree that young people in the UK are struggling more every day. But few are willing to listen to young people and develop solutions with them.

[See also: Where next for levelling up?]

Good policy for young people must be driven by the views, needs and circumstances of the same people it is designed to support, and with a community-by-community approach. That starts by not treating young people as one homogeneous group. There are huge differences to consider, such as their socio-economic backgrounds, locations and ethnicities.

Our research found that young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds struggle more with their mental wellbeing. Based on the social grading system that is derived from the British National Readership Survey, 39 per cent of DE social grades (those who are economically inactive, unemployed or the lowest-skilled manual workers) experience mental health issues, compared with 29 per cent of ABs (those who hold typically “white collar” or professional jobs).

Put it this way: the government doesn’t just design policy for “grown-ups” as if they are one, catch-all group, so it shouldn’t do this for younger people either.

These distinctions matter and need incorporating as we challenge the thinking behind how policy interventions are designed. It also means there aren’t neat solutions; we need to accept this can’t be solved with a one-size-fits-all approach.

That’s why we’re sharing these insights and research, which have been worked through with young people to identify the real issues at hand. We won’t pretend to have accurate solutions yet, but we urge businesses, think tanks and policymakers to adopt this approach.

Businesses like the Co-op are ready to provide the resources, expertise and scale to help bring about this change. However, if we are truly focused on creating a fairer future for young people, we must change the way we develop policy and interventions to support them.

[See also: How would Labour do levelling up?]