Back to the future? Thoughts on the first UK2070 Commission report

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The UK2070 Commission has released its first report: fairer and stronger: rebalancing the UK economy. The first of three reports, it represents the latest in a long line of policy efforts which have sought to tackle the deep spatial inequality which has plagued the UK as far back as the Barlow Commission of 1940. Does this report – or the Commission as a whole – offer a genuine, much-needed step change?

The starting point for UK2070 should be an acknowledgement that we live in unprecedented times: profound social, economic and democratic crises continue to unfold with a terrifying backdrop of ongoing climate emergency. Spatial imbalances are framed by this, as such  we need a fundamental redress to the UK social contract – this is not a 1979, 1997 or 2010 moment, this is more like 1945.

The report exposes and evidences the longstanding scale, breadth and depth of inequality in a way that should be applauded. Where it falls down, sadly, is in offering prescriptions which are simply an extension to what has gone before. Ideas such as more power through devolution, national spatial planning frameworks, national renewal funds and regeneration, whilst entirely laudable, echo the (broadly) failed efforts of the governments of the 1980s, 90s and 00s. The fact is that an augmentation to the existing social contract and economic model or working within it is just not bold enough.

We need a progressive leap. A leap that addresses the unacceptable present, whilst grappling with an uncertain future. Only then will we be able to meaningfully address the entrenched inequality which has bedevilled the UK for decades, and, in doing so, create a bold and sustainable reframe of the UK economic and political model.

As the UK2070 Commission continue their work, I propose four key areas to consider:

The deep symbiosis between ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ is now indubitable

“In previous eras we have been encouraged to understand ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ as discrete physical and conceptual spheres, but we are now in an era when the deep symbiosis between the two must be treated as indubitable.”

Perhaps revealing its apprehension at radically reshaping our economic model, the first report barely touches upon climate crisis. This is a glaring omission. Efforts to correct imbalances can only be successful if contextual threats are laid bare and addressed. In previous eras we have been encouraged to understand ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ as discrete physical and conceptual spheres, but we are now in an era when the deep symbiosis between the two must be treated as indubitable. Anything less is a failure. Our economic model is barely stumbling along in the failing age of extractive fossil capitalism, a model underpinned by the extraction and destruction of our shared social and environmental resources. Economic inequality is a product of this economic model. It cannot and should not be ignored. If the UK2070 Commission is truly seeking to rebalance the economy, it first needs to consider a wholescale redress to that extractive economic model. In this they should be champions for ideas which intrinsically recouple the economic with the environmental and offer a genuine transition and transformation – such as those offered by the Green New Deal.

Without fundamental address to financial power, spatial rebalancing will ultimately be undermined

The report does not deeply consider how financial power has for decades actively concentrated wealth spatially and within the hands of a few, and yet the rise of financial power (combined with a decline in union and worker power) is central to the growth of inequality. Finance, through capital investment return, has been central to the UK economic model, and has served to justify more investment. This has fuelled public infrastructure investment in the pre-existing growth winners – London, the south east and city centre agglomerations of the favoured regional cities. Furthermore, present UK economic policy views financial power as sacrosanct, just look at how the banks were bailed out and public austerity paid and continues to pay for it. Without address to this, any hopes for spatial rebalancing will play second fiddle to – and ultimately be undermined by – this financial power and those who have always gained most from it.

Address wealth extractivism to increase the range of people who have a stake in the economy

“The UK2070 Commission have a duty to develop growing ideas such as community wealth building and new municipalism.”

By concentrating on the spatial rebalancing of growth, with redistribution of wealth after its creation, the report misses the opportunity to address wealth extractivism and the potential of new forms of economic ownership. In future work, the Commission should consider pre-distribution, how we counteract wealth extractivism through policies such as a land value tax and advancing inclusive ownership models. The UK2070 Commission have a duty to develop growing ideas such as community wealth building and new municipalism. We must advance the expansion of societal ownership and increase the range of people who have a stake in the economy.

Adopt a democratic process and build a movement for the change you want to see

Commissions like UK2070 involve knowledgeable people who seek evidence and answers and policy solutions to problems faced by the rest of us. But a standard commission process is not commensurate to these times. In recognition of the gravity and scale of the challenge before them, the Commission should adopt a deeper deliberative democratic process (a citizens assembly for a fairer economy?) and, in doing so, build a movement around its ideas. Not doing so will miss a great opportunity and run the risk of developing ideas and recommendations which look like pleading and have little traction in the communities they seek to help.


We are in a moment of profound change – a crisis on a huge social, economic, democratic scale in the midst of a climate emergency. Many people across the country are locked out of wealth – indeed one in four children in London live in relative poverty. Read that again. One in four.

The old ways of doing things are failing. The UK2070 Commission understands the seriousness of our situation but fails to recognise that we have no choice but to enter a genuine progressive moment, in which fundamental changes in our economic and social model and a new social contract are delivered. In its subsequent work I hope UK2070 gets bolder and joins organisations like CLES in working up a genuinely new economic model for the UK.

A UK in which the climate crisis is addressed and where deep inequalities are banished once and for all must be battled for and won.