Five ways to power up North in 2021 after virus – Jonathan Webb

THE pandemic has made 2020 a year like no other and will result in lasting social and economic consequences. It is crucial that 2021 is a year of renewal in the North and that people begin to see real change.

The Government’s £4bn Levelling Up Fund needs to be increased and revamped into a long-term plan to level up the regions.

In its current form, it remains too centralised and its funding is not ambitious enough. Ultimately, it risks distributing money in a haphazard and unfair manner.

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The levelling up agenda must tackle the issues that really matter. Here are five priorities it should address to ensure that it becomes more than a government soundbite.

How can cities like Leeds best recover from the Covid pandemic?

Invest in Northern jobs: The North has faced the brunt of the economic damage dealt by Covid-19.

Major city regions such as Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester are now facing an unprecedented rise in unemployment. The pandemic, combined with a decade of austerity, has created a perfect storm. Without action now, growing unemployment will create new hardship.

Less money in people’s pockets will also accelerate the hollowing out of local high streets.

The North needs new jobs that are not just well-paid, but future proof. The Government and regional leaders must commit to building the North’s low-carbon economy and focus on major infrastructure projects such as housing retrofit. This will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and contribute to tackling the climate crisis.

Upgrading rail links across the North remains a political priority, argues Jonathan Webb.

Devolve real power and resources to close regional divides: The pandemic has starkly demonstrated the link between good health and prosperity.

Regions across the North are both less prosperous and have significantly higher rates of premature deaths as a result of diverse conditions, such as heart disease.

Poor health outcomes reduce economic productivity and hinder people’s ability to work. Regional leaders should be given the funding they need to enact real change.

At the same time, devolution must give communities a real say on the issues that matter. The election of West Yorkshire’s first directly-elected mayor should provide a blueprint for a more ambitious redistribution of power that is citizen-led. Democratic innovations such as citizens’ juries can give communities a direct say on the public policies that matter most.

Bring the North’s transport into the 21st century: Proportionally less money is spent on Northern transport when compared with the other regions. Improving rail links between the North’s major cities will create economic prosperity and allow businesses to operate widely.

It is about time public transport was brought up to the same standard as other modern regions in Western Europe. Bus services must also be expanded to help rural communities and made much more affordable for those on lower incomes.

Nature at the heart of the North’s recovery: Unable to holiday abroad, many people have discovered the spectacular natural environment that the North has to offer.

Roughly 20 per cent of the North is covered by a national park. Without further action to preserve biodiversity and tackle the climate crisis, there is a real risk that future generations will not be able to enjoy these areas of natural beauty.

Regional leaders should work together to promote tourism and ensure that its world class beauty spots attract new visitors. This will help sustain and create vital jobs in the tourism and hospitality industry over the years to come.

A plan to end homelessness for good: Great strides were made to shield rough sleepers during the first national lockdown. However, rough sleeping is just a small part of a wider problem.

Growing unemployment, increased housing costs and relationship breakdown have introduced new families to the plight of homelessness for the first time.

Regions in the North has seen some of the most dramatic increases in homelessness during the past decade. The problem is not just limited to major cities. It is a problem in rural areas too.

Central government should commit to building more social housing so that everyone has a home they can afford. Regional combined authorities can play a key role in co-ordinating action, ensuring that homelessness becomes a problem of the past.

Jonathan Webb is a senior research fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @jrkwebb.

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