The concept of ‘levelling up’ was writ large throughout the recent Queen’s Speech, with measures ranging from the creation of freeports to a new programme designed to accelerate access to skills and training. While business groups have broadly welcomed the move to improve prospects and prosperity across the UK, amidst the backdrop of COVID and Brexit the government has at times struggled to articulate its levelling up agenda and how it will be achieved.
One thing that has become clear, as lockdown measures ease and the country looks to recover, is that levelling up is a political, social and economic imperative, and according to former government minister and chartered accountant Justine Greening, accountancy has the chance to take the lead and shape the agenda.
“The profession has a unique place, in that its reach and influence across business is unparalleled,” Greening told ICAEW Insights. “If it can be a profession that is open and progressive then that path will open to so many more people.”
Taking the business mantra ‘what can be measured can be managed’, Greening has put forward 14 levelling-up goals to help break down the challenges, from successful school years to closing the digital divide.
“It’s important to have a common language to report on this and set out what the S in ESG means in practice,” said Greening. “As professionals, chartered accountants can become a big part of how we hit these goals, and the profession can be one that people look at as an exemplar of how it’s done.”
During her time in Parliament and after leaving in 2019, Greening has campaigned for broadening social mobility and opportunity in the UK. In 2018 she co-founded the Social Mobility Pledge – the largest business campaign of its kind, bringing together a coalition of over 550 businesses employing over 5.5m people, alongside 90 universities across the UK.
“It seems to me that the debate has become ‘business is a problem that needs to be fixed,’ and we need to reshape this message,” said Greening. “There has always been a focus on closing the gaps in the education system, but we often miss how important a role business plays in connecting opportunity and careers.”
The reality of social mobility
Accountancy played a big part in Greening’s own social mobility journey. Educated at her local comprehensive in Rotherham, she went on to qualify with PwC in Southampton, then spent two years seconded to the Lausanne office, before moving on to GlaxoSmithKline, Centrica and then Parliament.
“There were times when I felt a fish out of water,” she admits. “In the early days, one of the partners had a yacht and invited us all for a day out on it. I didn’t go because I was uncomfortable – I didn’t know how to behave or what I was meant to wear. Looking back as someone who became a cabinet minister it sounds mad, but that’s the reality for many people from a similar background.”
The impact of COVID on social mobility
Turning to the impact the pandemic has had on social mobility, Greening said it was vital that government and businesses act to make sure post-lockdown opportunities aren’t missed.
“We already had a levelling-up challenge before COVID – having said that, this is a moment we can take a fresh look at how we fix this in the long term,” she said. “Through innovative responses to the pandemic, we can learn and work remotely. In many companies, staff can work more flexibly – this is fast becoming a reality. If we can keep the things we’ve learned during lockdown, potentially this can blend with the face-to-face world. There are risks around gaps getting wider but also real opportunities – homeworking and home learning can become a big part of closing the gap.”
Investment ‘necessary but not sufficient’
Greening called the promised investment in this year’s Budget and the recent Queen’s Speech “necessary but not sufficient,” stating that the outlay needs to be married up with an education system that has social mobility as its stated purpose, giving people the knowledge and skills to connect with opportunities that are on their doorstep.
As an example, she cites the work done by her former employer PwC in Bradford. In 2018, the city was part of what was designated a social mobility 'coldspot' – where young people are seen to have fewer education and employment opportunities. Working with the local and national government, schools and colleges, PwC established an Assurance centre in the local area and has hired 140 employees, the majority from the local area.
‘PwC’s office in Bradford is a good example of a win-win,” said Greening. “They’ve now got a fast-growing office and the firm is tapping into brilliant local talent. Smart-thinking companies can spot potential. It’s important to recognise that talent is everywhere – it can have significant results if done well.”
Every company has a role to play
Greening wants all businesses to now set out their levelling-up strategy alongside their net zero strategy and she urges accounting firms to take the lead. “Every company has a role to play in driving a levelled-up Britain and I’ve seen a huge amount of best practice out there and tonnes of innovation by businesses that others can draw upon. It’s a million-piece jigsaw to transform the country – but for any organisation, it starts by making your business’s levelling-up jigsaw piece the best it can be.
“If every business does that we really shift the dial on social mobility and levelling up. The work I’m doing with some of the most front-footed companies can help show the way and I’d love to work with others committed to following their lead. Business can really be seen to drive change. It’s what the purpose agenda is all about.”