Interview | Justine Greening says construction has a critical role in levelling up

Levelling up has become a widely used phrase in politics and business in recent years but there is often a difference of opinion about what it means and a belief that delivering it lies solely with the government.

Greening's Purpose Coalition is
supporting businesses’ role in delivering levelling up by increasing opportunities through social mobility

Nonetheless, former MP for Putney Justine Greening is clear about its definition and the role businesses must play in achieving its aims.

“Talent is spread equally everywhere but opportunity is not,” says Greening. “But you don’t achieve equality of opportunity by [government or businesses] taking opportunities away from people who have already got them and giving them to those who don’t have them. The challenge we’ve got is how you extend more opportunities to people who don’t have them. That’s why it is termed levelling up.”

Greening first used the term, as well as explaining the need to improve social mobility, when she was international development secretary, but she built on it as education secretary.

“We built a whole strategy around that concept of closing those gaps that open up in the education system that we know then cascade through into the outcomes people have in the rest of their lives,” she says.

Her belief that businesses were the key to making levelling up a success led her to leave cabinet in 2019 and to later step down as an MP so she could work with businesses full time.

She is now chair of the Purpose Coalition which is supporting industry’s efforts. Purpose Coalition works with businesses to assess and measure their social impact. It has just completed a levelling up impact report with Tarmac.

During the review, Tarmac’s performance against 14 Purpose Goals established by the Purpose Coalition with input from businesses, universities, civil society and policymakers was assessed.

The goals all target specific challenges with regard to opening up opportunities and include, among other factors, a focus on recruitment processes and career progression opportunities.

Talent is spread equally everywhere but opportunity is not

The goals aim to set out clear objectives for the UK’s levelling up challenge and use the same framework as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The assessment of Tarmac’s social impact is good news for the firm and for the levelling up agenda.

“Tarmac has a huge reach across the country,” says Greening.

“That means it also has huge potential to deliver purposeful impact on the communities where it operates, not just in terms of the company itself but extending that to its supply chain and to the local projects it supports.”

Working with Tarmac has highlighted to Greening the potential construction and infrastructure employers have for achieving levelling up and she is keen to work with other firms in the sector.

But to understand why the goals and reviews of how businesses are performing against them are important, Greening believes that a firm understanding of the ambitions of levelling up is vital.

Her work to guide businesses to support levelling up started with the launch of the Social Mobility Pledge in 2019, to which 774 organisations have now committed.

Employer commitment

It asks employers to commit to three tasks. “One was to get into schools talking about careers,” explains Greening. “The second was, having hopefully inspired young people about what you do, to open up the doors so they can come in and get experience themselves, whether that’s through work experience or apprenticeships. The third thing we asked them to do was to make sure their recruitment processes were open and fair.

“These were really practical commitments and, if every organisation in Britain does them, a lot of things will change for the better.”

Many firms working on the pledge with Greening felt there was more they could do. Those wanting to recognise that and measure their performance against a broader, more comprehensive range of goals led to the development of the Purpose Coalition in November 2021.

Roll forward to today and more than 100 firms have been through the same process as Tarmac. The list includes the BBC, Channel 4 and 20 NHS trusts as well as local authorities, such as Essex County Council.

“It’s a really broad group of organisations that are all saying ‘we want to have an impact on social mobility and we’re going to put in place proper, thought through plans to work out how we do that’,” says Greening.

In the UK, the construction and infrastructure sector’s wide geographical spread means that it has a greater opportunity to deliver on levelling up and social mobility, according to Greening.

Tapping into 'cold spots'

It has a lot to gain too and she believes the sector can use the approach to overcome the challenges of an ageing workforce. In particular it can tap into social mobility “cold spots” to find new recruits.

While Greening can see that the Purpose Coalition and the work the businesses it collaborates with are important for delivering on levelling up, this is personally important for Greening too. Growing up in Rotherham, she was the first person in her family to go to university, but says she got an early lesson in economics during her 1980s childhood. She later went on to study the subject at the University of Southampton.

“It was impossible to grow up in South Yorkshire in the 1980s and not understand how important politics [and economics] was for people’s lives because it so intrinsically impacted my own life,” she says.

“There was a lot of unemployment and I think that showed me how much brilliant talent was just going to waste.”

The failings of the steel industry, in which her father worked, also taught her that “first of all, the numbers have got to add up”.

Profit is good

She adds: “So actually businesses making profit is a good thing. When businesses don’t make profit, people lose their jobs and I think the second thing [growing up in South Yorkshire] taught me was that businesses are all about opportunities.” That experience is what drives her today.

“[Opportunities today are] too much about a lucky break or an unlucky break,” explains Greening.

“If something goes wrong, then that’s it: you’re on a different trajectory. Whereas actually what we want is a version of Britain where there are multiple chances for life to get on track.”

Greening hopes other construction businesses will follow the path set out by Tarmac to build a strong cohort of businesses that have a clear view about how people can “get in and get on”. But she also has a goal for the companies to understand how to measure that, “so we can know for sure if levelling up has delivered”.

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