North’s economic emergency over virus requires action – Andrew Carter
WITH the vaccination programme ramping up and so far proving a success, there is now a very real possibility that our lives may return to some form of normality in the not-too-distant future.
However, while outward signs of normality will return as the public health crisis ends, the economic crisis is only just beginning for many towns and cities across Yorkshire.
Lockdown’s restrictions, while necessary to protect lives and the economy, have had a devastating impact on livelihoods.
Some 1.3 million more people are now claiming unemployment-related benefits compared to last March – 82,000 of those in Yorkshire.
Millions remain furloughed and many of them are living with the worry of whether they will have a job to return to once the pandemic ends.
As is all too often the case, less affluent places and people which struggled before the pandemic have been hit hard during it, and will face the longest and hardest road back to recovery.
This is a political challenge for the Prime Minister, who won his big majority a little over a year ago on a promise to ‘level up’ the country’s left behind cities and towns.
While millions of voters took the Prime Minister at his word, people in these Blue Wall cities and towns are now struggling and, as Centre for Cities’ annual report Cities Outlook 2021 has found, the task of levelling up the country is now more than four times harder than it was this time last year.
In Yorkshire the challenge is even bigger.
Around 100,000 people in its largest cities and towns need to find secure, well-paid jobs to level up the region – that’s almost 80,000 more people than last March.
Several cities stand out as particularly hard hit. A combination of high unemployment, few private sector firms and a relatively low-skilled workforce means that Hull and Bradford now face two of the hardest post-Covid recovery challenges in the whole UK. In fact, the scale of Hull’s challenge is second only to Birmingham in its enormity.
It is important that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recognise that simply dodging total economic catastrophe is not enough to claim to have levelled up the country.
Many of these places struggling now were struggling when the pandemic hit and so, for them, a speedy vaccination operation and a reopening of what’s left of the high street will only ever be a partial victory.
So, when the Chancellor delivers his next Budget in March, he must use it to get the levelling up agenda back on track.
Investing in skills and adult education for those out of work will be essential to build back better from Covid-19, which has unfortunately shown us how precarious many people’s jobs in less affluent cities and towns are.
For the Chancellor, this should be the wake-up call needed to properly invest in preparing people in places like Hull and Bradford for more future-proof careers, such as those in the green economy.
Once we emerge from lockdown, the ability to get around will become increasingly important again.
Air pollution rose significantly last year as people ditched buses and trains for the socially distanced safety of their cars. This cannot be allowed to continue post-pandemic.
In addition to harming our health and our planet, traffic congestion is a barrier to economic growth across Yorkshire.
To level up, the Government must press on with plans to improve bus and train links within and between Yorkshire’s cities.
The Government’s handling of the pandemic has also shown us that Whitehall is not well placed to micro-manage our daily lives.
Across the Pennines, Andy Burnham’s very public stand-off with the Government showed us that devolution can create strong local champions to challenge the Government when they think they’ve got it wrong.
This year West Yorkshire will elect its first directly elected mayor, to sit alongside the South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis, providing it with its own local champion to level up the city-region.
While plans to further reform and empower local government stalled last year, it is an essential component of the levelling up agenda.
The Government should press on and finish devolution in Yorkshire with well-funded elected mayors in York and North Yorkshire, and in Hull and East Riding.
However the Government must remember that ‘building back better’ is not the same as just ‘building back’.
The effects of the pandemic mean the Government must re-enforce its focus on levelling up the places that have been hit hardest and build a better future.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities.
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