Levelling up or leaving disabled people behind

Gemma Hope

Our Director of Policy Gemma Hope looks at what the Levelling Up White Paper really says and what impact could be on disabled people.

We’ve heard the term ‘levelling up’ being used a fair amount in the last year or so. But what does it really mean? And will that ‘level’ really be equal, or will it be on a slant? We were eager to see the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper. We want to determine just precisely how disabled people are included in its plans to “spread opportunity and prosperity to all parts of the UK.” 

What did the White Paper say?

The plan itself commits to shifting “government focus and resources to Britain’s forgotten communities throughout the 2020s”. For that to be true, the plan must address the inequalities and injustices faced by disabled people every single day. Too often, disabled people are left out of the conversation, one of the largest ‘forgotten communities.’  

While the White Paper references the challenges disabled people face, it lacks any practical policy solutions to help address these challenges. And in other areas, accessibility and inclusion don’t seem to be part of the conversation at all.

Accessible transport

Take transport, for example; the report acknowledges that transport is key in connecting people to jobs, businesses and each other. And it was positive to see the government recognising the fact that accessible transport is essential for disabled people being able to work. But it was disappointing that there are no real plans to tackle transport accessibility outlined in the report. For example, there is no mention of making our railways accessible.

A lack of step-free access across our rail networks means many disabled people miss out on opportunities to work and socialise because their local routes are not accessible. It’s a real missed opportunity to offer solutions to a problem that’s not going away. 41% of stations in Britain don’t have step-free access, and at the current rate of completion, they won’t be until 2070! How can we ‘level up’ if disabled people can’t even get on the platform? Commitments to accessible transport absolutely need to be a key part of any ‘Levelling Up’ infrastructure projects moving forward.


From an employment perspective, it was good to see the White Paper highlighting the disability employment gap. And it acknowledges that ‘Levelling Up’ shouldn’t just focus on geography; it’s about investing in people – considering factors like disability is crucial to levelling up. So it was encouraging to see additional financial investment for employment support for disabled people and people with health conditions through programmes like the Work and Health Programme. But that being said – it’s all in the detail, and this Paper lacks that.  

For one, are existing programmes reaching the right groups of people at the moment? And aside from that, the White Paper doesn’t offer any new solutions to tackle some of the common barriers disabled people face when trying to access work. For example, negative employer attitudes towards disability. It would have been encouraging to see clear plans around more practical solutions like skills programmes, accessible apprenticeships or paid supported internships focused solely on closing the disability employment gap.

What will funding look like?

As we offer this analysis, it would be remiss not to mention that the long-awaited guidance on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund was launched simultaneously as the ‘Levelling Up White Paper’. The Fund replaces the European Social Fund and will be critical in backing programmes as part of the ‘levelling up agenda’. So it was good to see the Fund focusing on people and places with disability getting a key mention. But there’s one pretty big factor in all this – the funding won’t be available until 2024. That, unfortunately, means less support for disabled people in the here and now. 

Is it enough?

With the rising costs of living, which will, unfortunately, impact many disabled people the hardest, we cannot wait years for support for disabled people. For disabled people to truly be included in levelling up plans, we urgently need to see more practical solutions to make it a reality.