Michael Gove puts healthy life expectancy inequality at the heart of ‘levelling up’ agenda

Tom Selby
12 May 2022

•    Closing gaps in healthy life expectancy is set to become a central mission as the Government aims to put meat on the bones of its ‘levelling up’ agenda (New Bill to level up the nation - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk))
•    Official data shows there are huge gaps in healthy life expectancy in different parts of the UK (Health state life expectancies, UK - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk))
•    In Blackpool, for example, male healthy life expectancy at birth was just 53.5 years in 2018-20, versus a UK average of 62.8 years. In fact healthy life expectancy is falling in Blackpool and other areas
•    In Westminster, by contrast, male healthy life expectancy at birth stood at 66.3 years in 2018-20
•    The tale is similar for women, with female healthy life expectancy at birth in Blackpool standing at 54.3 years in 2018-20, compared to 65.2 years in Westminster
•    The causes of differences in life expectancy are complex and likely include a combination income, wealth, education, lifestyle and the ability (and willingness) to access healthcare

Tom Selby, head of retirement policy at AJ Bell, comments:

“Michael Gove has finally unveiled his ‘Levelling Up and Regeneration’ Bill, the centrepiece of this Government’s stated aim of spreading prosperity and opportunity to all corners of the UK.

“The Bill will create a legal duty for ministers to set and report on a number of ‘missions’ designed to address inequality. 

“These include closing the pay and productivity gap between the richest and poorest areas, eradicating child illiteracy, improving local transport and, perhaps most ambitiously, closing gaps in healthy life expectancy.

“The gaps in healthy life expectancy between different regions of the UK are staggeringly large. People are not only expected to live much longer in certain parts of the country, but also to spend much more of their life in a state of good health. A male born in Blackpool, for example, can expect to live just over 53 years on average in good health – almost 13 years less than a male born in Westminster.

“The chasm in healthy life expectancy at birth isn’t much better among women. Female healthy life expectancy at birth is around 54 years in Blackpool versus 65 years in Westminster.”

Big problem but what’s the solution?

“While the problem of healthy life expectancy inequality is clear, the solution – or more likely solutions – are not. 

“There are lots of different factors that affect how long we live to varying degrees, including lifestyle, income, wealth, education and availability of healthcare.

“Many of these factors are also interconnected. For example, if someone is able to increase their earning power, they might be more able to afford private healthcare. The ability to earn a decent wage is also, on average, affected significantly by levels of education.

“It is therefore unlikely a single solution will solve the great life expectancy and healthy life expectancy divides we see between different parts of the country. Deep structural reforms across all parts of the UK’s economic and social framework will be required if this core ‘levelling up’ mission is to be achieved – something that is likely to take decades.

“It is, to put it mildly, a colossal task. But measuring progress on healthy life expectancy inequality is a crucial starting point and should help focus minds on one of the biggest challenges facing policymakers today.”

A story in two graphs: How male healthy life expectancy has shifted in Westminster and Blackpool since 2011

Average male healthy life expectancy at birth in Westminster has risen in recent years…
…while in Blackpool male healthy life expectancy has plummeted to 53.5 years.
Source: Office for National Statistics

Tom Selby
Head of Retirement Policy

Tom Selby is a multi-award-winning former financial journalist, specialising in pensions and retirement issues. He spent almost six years at a leading adviser trade magazine, initially as Pensions Reporter before becoming Head of News in 2014. Tom joined AJ Bell as Senior Analyst in April 2016. He has a degree in Economics from Newcastle University.

Contact details

Mobile: 07702 858 234
Email: tom.selby@ajbell.co.uk

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