Rishi Sunak was able to breathe a sigh of relief last week when he was given a much more upbeat forecast for the UK economy than he might have hoped for.

Supported by the success of the vaccine programme, the Office for Budget Responsibility (the Government’s independent forecaster) now believes the UK economy is on track to return to pre-crisis levels of activity by mid-2022. Unemployment is expected to peak at just 6.5% – the lowest rise in the number of people out of work of any recent recession. But the inequalities that this crisis has exposed will not disappear quickly, and it will take years for many businesses and families to rebuild their livelihoods.

On policy, much was made of the planned changes to taxation. Most of the debate in the business community concentrated on the announcements around corporation tax. First, the super deduction on capital allowances, and second, the rise in the main rate to 25% – the first such increase since 1973.

The other area of focus was the levelling-up agenda, including a new £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund. Along with the Shared Prosperity Fund, these measures are also designed to offer a better alternative to the EU Structural Funds that ended once the UK left the EU.

Supported by a wave of new MPs in northern England, levelling-up is a political priority for the current Government. But the stark imbalances between “rich” and “poor” communities in the UK aren’t new. Nor is the rhetoric new either.

In 2003, the Treasury argued that “economic gain must come from a process of ‘levelling up’ – enabling every part of the UK to develop and grow to its full potential”. But despite these good intentions, regional disparities have, if anything, got worse rather than better.

One of the challenges is that no one has yet really defined what we mean by “levelling-up” or how best to do it. Put differently: what will success look like?

Definitions matter, as we have seen with the controversy over the ranking of local authorities for the “Levelling Up” fund. But there are more fundamental questions about whether traditional measures of economic activity accurately capture the problems we’re trying to solve.

Attempting to make every part of the UK have more similar scores on some technical estimate of economic activity, such as gross value added, is as impractical as it is non-sensical. Agglomeration effects, industrial clusters and the attractiveness of cities for young people will always lead to certain places naturally generating more economic “value added” than others. Broader measures covering inequalities, social deprivation, economic opportunity (or lack of), the quality of economic activity created, and wellbeing are much more appropriate. But which ones to use, and what to prioritise?

The biggest, and most tricky, question relates to the “how”. Much of the focus has centred on infrastructure. But inequalities between regions are deep-rooted, complex and cross-cutting. They cannot be addressed through infrastructure alone. A mix of investment in education, skills, health, anti-poverty measures, will all be needed. But the most significant changes will come from genuinely empowering communities to develop solutions that work for their own local area. Ultimately, what will matter is the level of funding government is prepared to invest, and over what time horizon. A £4.8bn fund is a start but is a fraction of what will be needed year on year.

“Levelling-up” cannot be addressed overnight. Regional inequalities are entrenched, and well-designed policies could take years, if not decades, to have meaningful effects. Perhaps the greatest risk is that policymakers, when they do not see immediate results, move on to the next “hot topic”. It’s easy to talk about levelling up, but much harder to do.

Graeme Roy is professor of economics at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School