Every town, village and city has its own local heroes and I’ve been so impressed by people who have put others before themselves, even when they have faced personal loss. It’s true that in our region ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’.
Take a barber here in Barnsley who lost his mother. In November, he got together with a friend and organised a huge collection of Christmas presents for children and young people living in poverty. So successful was his appeal, hundreds of local people were inspired to choose, wrap and donate gifts. Everyone played their part, without seeking honour or recognition.
And then there’s The Clothing Bank, in Knottingley. If you don’t know this organisation, you should. It’s run by a tireless group of volunteers who collect clothes and shoes donated by the public to directly help families in need. Demand has soared so much so that it has had to move into larger storage premises.
If you want a sad and disturbing snapshot of what the pandemic has done to people, follow The Clothing Bank’s Facebook feed; mothers and fathers fleeing domestic violence with only the clothes they stand up in, families where the breadwinner has been thrown out of work and there is no money for winter coats and boots, little girls without dressing gowns and nightdresses.
It’s heartbreaking as ordinary families are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive. And yet this perilous state of affairs has brought out the best in Yorkshire people – it’s made so many of us dig deep and help each other in ways we had never even imagined until the pandemic struck.
We’ve always been known for our friendliness, but with the demands of modern life, work commitments and the rest, that quality had been ebbing away. Until 2020.
The pandemic has made us all stop and re-think our priorities and look outwards instead of inwards. With some disgraceful exceptions, I’ve noticed a new kind of pride in the old-fashioned values of pulling together, putting aside social and cultural differences and counting our blessings.
As we hug our own children just that little bit tighter each night, we think of those less fortunate. And instead of pulling down the shutters when forced to stay indoors, we wonder how we might reach out and help.
Our collective efforts at surviving this global pandemic are helping us to find a new self-confidence in ourselves here in Yorkshire.
This shift in perception has been brought into sharp focus by the current difficulties faced by those living under Tier 4 restrictions in London and the South East.
I can speak with authority here; I have family members in Kent and Surrey. When I talk to my relatives these days I pick up a new kind of respect. They know that many of us in the north have lived under strict coronavirus restrictions for months now and by and large, it hasn’t dented our relentless optimism and determination.
For the first time in decades, centuries even, it has been us in the North showing the rest of the country the way. And as so many individual and collective efforts have illustrated, we have done so with forbearance and courage.
Much has been said about the ‘great reset’ of the past 12 months. When we consider the effect that the pandemic has had on travel, freedom of movement, the economy and the climate, we should perhaps now add the ongoing issue of the North-South divide. Will a greater understanding between the two halves of the country and a more balanced view become a legacy of Covid?
And if this indeed turns out to be the case, how should the Prime Minister’s great promise to ‘level up’ the country now begin to take shape? When all the old uncertainties have been swept away by forces beyond anyone’s control, the landscape left behind provides a blank sheet of paper for a different way of thinking about regional inequality.
This is not to downplay the very real needs of the North; investment in jobs, a fresh focus on growing local economies and a much-improved regional transport network, for starters.
However, our ability to set the agenda and prove our worth should be key to a new approach – and recognition – from Westminster.
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