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How the Red Wall Has Been Levelled Down Since 2010

From child poverty to social care, some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country have faced a decade of decline at the hands of successive Conservative governments, report Sam Bright and Sascha Lavin

Former Prime Minister David Cameron and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

How the Red Wall Has BeenLevelled DownSince 2010

From child poverty to social care, some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country have faced a decade of decline at the hands of successive Conservative governments, report Sam Bright and Sascha Lavin

‘Red Wall’ constituencies in England have been systematically levelled down by governments during the last 11 years on an array of indicators, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

We investigated the changes in outcomes and funding in relation to social care, food bank usage, unemployment, local spending powers, child poverty, free school meals, and hospital waiting times – finding that ‘Red Wall’ areas had either suffered disproportionately, or had failed to keep pace with the rest of the country, when the indicators had improved.

This reveals the fundamental irony at the heart of Boris Johnson’s promise to “level up” the country – the Prime Minister’s pledge to improve the circumstances of more disadvantaged parts of the UK, many of which voted for the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election for the first time in decades.

Child Poverty

We analysed child poverty in English ‘Red Wall’ seats – former industrial heartlands in the north and Midlands, many of which flipped from Labour to the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election – as defined by Sebastian Payne’s book, Broken Heartlands.

From 2014/15 to 2019/20, the percentage of children in poverty increased in Red Wall seats from 29.8% to 34.6% – a jump of 16%. Over the same period, child poverty increased in England as a whole from 28% to 30.4% – an increase of 8%.

Indeed, profound regional inequalities were exacerbated in this period. Child poverty in the north east of England jumped markedly, by 41.9%, from 26% to 36.9%. Meanwhile, child poverty in the south east of England fell, from 24% to 23.8%, while it only marginally increased in the south west – from 26% to 26.1%.

Large increases were also seen in Yorkshire (28% to 33.4%) and the west Midlands (30% to 34.7%). Child poverty data is collected on a constituency basis, whereas the other metrics in this article relate to local authorities. For all the following data, we assessed the closest local authorities to the Red Wall constituencies in question.


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Free School Meals

A similar trend has been seen in relation to free school meals – particularly worsened during the pandemic.

From 2011/12 to 2020/21, the proportion of secondary school children eligible for free school meals in Red Wall areas has increased from 19.5% to 24%. Certain areas also suffer more heavily than others.

As of 2020/21, a staggering 39% of secondary school children are eligible for free school meals in Blackpool, compared with 25.6% in 2011/12. Some 33.9% are also eligible for free school meals in Newcastle upon Tyne, and 30.8% in Wolverhampton.

The increase in eligibility for free school meals in the Red Wall since 2011/12 – 23.2% – has also outstripped the England-wide average – 19.9% – while regions in the north and the Midlands have also been more greatly affected. Free school meals eligibility has increased by 29.5% in Yorkshire (from 16.6% to 21.5%), 24.4% in the north east (from 19.7% to 24.5%), and 21.5% in the north west (from 18.1% to 22%).

Spending Power

The deterioration of local circumstances relates heavily to the decline in state spending imposed by successive Conservative-led governments in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash. However, the decline in local spending power has been felt unevenly by different parts of the country.

Our analysis indicates that Red Wall areas saw their budgets cuts on average by 34.2% from 2010/11 to 2017/18, compared to an England-wide average of 28.6%. Some of the most pronounced falls in local spending power were seen in Hyndburn (45.2%), Chesterfield (45.2%), Burnley (44.8%) and Bolsover (43.7%).

These cuts were imposed on local authorities by the central government – through the Conservative Party’s austerity agenda, that sought to reduce public spending, ostensibly to reduce the divergence between national outgoings and tax revenues. Many Red Wall seats are heavily reliant on public-sector employment and services, by virtue of Margaret Thatcher’s deindustrialisation policies of the 1980s, and so austerity was more acutely felt by these constituencies.

This is reflected in the realm of social care. From 2010/11 to 2018/19, total expenditure on social care fell in Red Wall areas in real terms by 23.8%, compared to an England-wide average of 16%.

“The last decade under the Conservatives has seen hundreds of thousands of children pulled into poverty, public services weakened, and wages falling,” Wes Streeting MP, Shadow Child Poverty Secretary, told Byline Times. “Now Boris Johnson is showing whose side he’s on, handing tax cuts to big companies like Amazon, while putting taxes up on working families and cutting Universal Credit by £1,000 a year.”

NHS Waiting Times

All of this has invariably contributed to relatively worsening health outcomes in poorer areas of the country. Indeed, a new paper in the Lancet health journal has found that, overall, life expectancy has been falling in many areas of the north over the past decade. It found extreme differences in life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of the country – with men in parts of Blackpool expected to live for 68.3 years, compared to 95.3 years in some areas of Kensington and Chelsea in London.

The paper echoed the findings of public health expert Sir Michael Marmot, who has highlighted that multi-faceted social determinants – including poverty, homelessness and insecure work – all contribute to health outcomes.

NHS waiting times are one aspect of this picture. Our analysis shows that average waiting times for ‘admitted pathways’ (i.e. people who eventually require treatment) have markedly increased in Red Wall areas over the last decade.

We took February 2012 as a base and compared the waiting times with February 2020, before the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. On average, waiting times in Red Wall areas had increased from 8.5 weeks to 11.6 weeks – an increase of 36.5%.

As Byline Times revealed earlier this month, some 80% of Red Wall areas have suffered a decline in healthy life expectancy for either men or women since the Conservatives took office in 2010. Our analysis found that only one Red Wall area (out of the 20 with available data) exceeded the UK-wide average healthy life expectancy for men, while only three exceeded the average for women.

Food Parcels

What’s more, the number of food parcels delivered by the Trussell Trust – that runs the largest network of food banks in the country – shows a distinct skew towards Red Wall areas.

The data shows that, in 2019, the Trussell Trust delivered enough food parcels to cover 3.8% the total Red Wall population, based on Office for National Statistics population data. This compares to an England-wide average of 2.6% – a divergence of 38.5%.

Trussell Trust data also shows that the number of food parcels delivered in England increased from 867,000 in 2014/15 to 1.5 million in 2019/20 – an increase of 71.7%. Regionally, acute increases in Trussell food parcel deliveries were seen in the east Midlands (123.8%), the south east (98.2%), Yorkshire (83.5%) and the north west (60.5%).

‘The Broadest Shoulders’

More than a decade ago, in October 2010, Chancellor George Osborne said that those with the “broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden” of the Government’s fiscal austerity.

Judging by the above figures, this promise was not realised – with some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country suffering directly and indirectly from public cutbacks.

“Time and time again the Prime Minister and his Government have been unable to explain what levelling up means, that is because it is just another empty vacuous phrase, like the Northern Powerhouse before it,” Labour MP for South Shields, Emma Lewell-Buck, told Byline Times. “It is not a genuine attempt to improve communities across the country it is simply a political strategy that pits areas against each other for small pots of funding creating a piecemeal and unequal recovery.”

Moreover, even when circumstances have improved, the Red Wall has lagged behind the rest. Unemployment, for example, has fallen markedly since the immediate aftermath of the financial crash – from 7.7% to 4% across England from 2010/11 to 2017/18, a fall of 48.1%. This hasn’t quite been matched in the Red Wall, with unemployment having fallen from 9% to 5.1%, a drop of 43.2%.

And while the proportion of young people not in education, employment or training has fallen from 7.2% to 2.6% nationally from 2010 to 2019, the Red Wall has seen a less pronounced reduction, from 7.3% to 3.3%.

Before Boris Johnson can ‘level up’ the left-behind areas of the country, he must first undo the decade of levelling down imposed by his party on these very same areas.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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