For Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda to work, it must include mental health

Nathan Boroda
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The levelling up white paper expected this month is likely to feature a fair bit of detail on civic pride. Once they’ve finished doling out the cash to Conservative Party supporters, the government aims to find some money to ‘level up’ the country, with the intended effect of enhancing how people feel about their towns. But while hanging baskets are welcome additions to our towns in Bury, they are certainly not a substitute for properly funded and resourced public services – especially in mental health care.

Research from the House of Commons Library found that the prevalence of depression in 2019 was 8.9% in Bury North and 7.6% in Bury South. This stands in contrast to 3.6% in Cities of London and Westminster. Such alarming data suggests there is an intrinsic connection between levelling up and mental health. 

Last year, people in Bury had to wait an average of 42 days for the first treatment, compared to just four days in Redbridge. While declining mental health in our country has been exacerbated by lockdown, services were already incredibly stretched before then. Evidence like this from Bury also underlines the importance of Keir Starmer’s pledge at Labour conference to ensure that patients receive appropriate treatments within one month of referral.

Likewise, The Guardian reported in 2019 that there were nearly double the amount of psychiatrists in London than in the North West of England. Although staffing is only a part of improving mental health care, these statistics show that the North of England is already at a significant disadvantage when it comes to the resources available. It is also evidence that levelling up should include more resources for local NHS mental health services and greater training and recruitment in communities like ours. 

Labour has committed to recruiting 8,500 new staff and providing specialist support in each school. Wouldn’t it be great if our teachers could get on with the job of teaching, rather than being at the sharp end of mental health support as well? This policy was one of a number of important pledges in the leader’s conference speech that charity Mind said “could transform people’s mental health experiences”. Our party’s sensible policies on improving mental health provision stand in stark contrast to the government, which seems more focused on repairing roads for Tory peers.

Keir Starmer has also committed to putting an open access mental health hub for children and young people in every community. These hubs would allow children and young people to refer themselves for mental health treatment without needing to go through their GP. The government ought to match this pledge and fund one of these in each township in England. For communities like mine, this must happen as quickly as possible. 

The link between mental health and levelling up also means that improvements to mental health cannot be seen in isolation and must come with more investment to tackle poverty, end rough sleeping and support high-quality jobs. If the white paper fails to recognise this, levelling up will not get off the ground. Ultimately, new physical infrastructure is a good thing – but Boris Johnson’s flagship project will fail if it does not provide the social infrastructure that is needed in towns like Bury.

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