A woman walks past a mural in Manchester city centre. Cities in northern England and other areas suffering a surge in Covid-19 cases may have pubs and restaurants temporarily closed to combat the spread of the virus.

Public services must be at the heart of efforts to ‘level up’ the UK

2020 was a tough year for the UK public sector; covid placed unprecedented pressures on services and communities.

The most deprived parts of our country have suffered the effects of the pandemic most severely. Long-standing health inequalities mean that the death rate has been highest in our poorest areas, and the attainment gap between disadvantaged schoolchildren and their wealthier peers has widened further.

To date, much of the government’s focus on the divide between our communities has been on “levelling up”, primarily through major infrastructure projects such as new roads, hospitals and railways.

While poor infrastructure undeniably contributes to the divide, if the government’s ambitions for more deprived regions are to be fully realised, then it must also put money into the public services that are the backbone of our communities and societies.

By putting investment in “social infrastructure’” as well as physical infrastructure at the heart of its plans, the government can begin to reverse the health, educational and social inequalities that are holding these areas back.

This winter will be one of the most difficult on record for public services. The virus is still spreading too quickly and our frontline staff are being stretched.

But the vaccination programme presents an opportunity for recovery and a brighter future.

The pandemic has also shown that the UK’s public service providers are capable of radically transforming their services under pressure. As the Lords Public Services Committee’s recent inquiry showed, during the first national lockdown digital technology was used more widely, and more successfully, than ever before; local charities and community groups played an essential role in ensuring that services continued to be delivered; and councils facilitated collaboration between services to meet local people’s needs.

In 2021 and beyond, the “levelling up” agenda should follow three priorities. First, there needs to be greater emphasis on integration and collaboration rather than competition between public services.

The Cabinet Office issued new guidance during the pandemic which granted public service commissioners greater flexibility to award contracts based on social value to the community rather than the lowest cost. This facilitated closer partnership working between businesses and voluntary sector providers rooted in their communities and local authorities. The government should now take advantage of the greater freedoms it has over procurement post-Brexit to cement these changes.

Covid resulted in a greater focus on “place” – with services integrating around the needs of local neighbourhoods and communities. These place-based partnerships were often best placed to respond to the challenges of the pandemic and able to overcome the traditional barriers to NHS providers, voluntary organisations, and council funded social care collaborating in a local area. The government must retain this focus on integration and place in its plans for commissioning, NHS and social care reform.

Second, the government should use the upcoming white paper on English devolution – expected this year – to give local government and regional authorities greater control over the public services that are best delivered and coordinated at the local level. This is an opportunity to make public services directly accountable to the communities they serve.

However, if devolution is going to work the government needs to ensure that new powers are matched with adequate resource. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that councils will face a £3.1 billion funding gap this year due to covid-related pressures.

Third, the government needs to support public services to build on the rapid digitisation of services seen during the pandemic. However, when designing future public services we should be aware of the need to invest in reducing inequalities of access to digital technology, while acknowledging that in some services and for certain populations, human contact is irreplaceable. Ensuring clear lessons are learnt from the introduction of new technologies during the pandemic so that future public services are both modernised and accessible to all should be a policy priority.

If the government is serious about its pledge to regenerate “left behind” areas, it must prioritise place and collaboration, be radical in devolving power and resources from the centre to the locality, and invest in technologies that can engage citizens. If the “levelling up” agenda is to fully succeed it must have strong public services and empowered local communities at its heart.