At this critical point in the development of the North West’s economic landscape, it’s interesting to compare notes with elsewhere in the North, writes Kate Howe, development director at Public Sector Plc.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah at an event where we were able to discuss how Government, local authorities and the private sector can address the post-Covid economic challenges being faced across the North.
At a time when few women went into engineering, Chi graduated in 1987 with a degree in electrical engineering. She specialised in building infrastructure in new markets and gained decades of experience in the private sector before becoming an MP. Over the past four years, Chi has held shadow ministerial positions and is now the Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Digital.
It was interesting for me – as a born and bred Geordie now living in Manchester – to compare notes with Chi on the economic challenges and opportunities facing the North East and the North West.
The two regions face greater education and skills challenges than London and the South East. While 25% of London students achieved the top three grades at GCSE level in 2019, less than 20% did so in the North East and North West.
While the North East has made big steps in closing its skills gap in recent years, more than 60% of employers in the North East, North West and Yorkshire face difficulty finding qualified people with the skills they need.
Chi also highlighted research that showed the North East could lose up to 14 years of economic growth following a predicted 12% fall in Gross Value Added in 2020 caused by the pandemic.
The North West and Yorkshire and the Humber were forecast to face similar economic damage from Covid-19 with GVA estimated to fall by 11.2% and 12% respectively as three of the worst affected regions in the country.
In contrast, analysis of ONS and HMRC stats conducted by Iwoca showed that London was only forecast to lose 4% of growth, which demonstrates further inequality in the economic robustness of the regions.
As Chi stressed, the economic recovery from Covid-19 must be harnessed as an opportunity to address that inequality in the North. We need to get the recovery right for people and businesses.
Chi keeps a record of the most commonly raised concerns brought to her by constituents. Two areas of particular concern highlighted are the challenges facing our town centres and the human story behind the need for more housing. Housing has consistently been a top three concern for her constituents every single month during the almost 11 years she’s been an MP.
She highlighted that the housing sector faces a trilemma of challenges covering housing supply, standards, and decarbonisation. As a company working with local authority partners across the UK, we can agree that this set of challenges is a significant problem across the whole of the North.
North East and North West England have the lowest housing prices of the English regions. While the lack of housing supply is a huge challenge for families and young people across these regions, there is an opportunity here to deliver a new generation of housing that addresses the ongoing crisis.
Covid has also had a devastating impact on the North’s high streets which were already in a precarious position. Research by IBM’s US Retail Index notes that lockdowns have caused an e-commerce boom, with the pandemic accelerating the shift away from physical stores by roughly five years.
Local authorities are best placed to understand the needs of their areas and their communities to create better places to live, work and visit. By using their own vacant properties on the high street, directly purchasing units that become vacant or incentivising others to do so, councils can take a more active role to regenerate and reshape towns and cities for the future.
Councils can curate local flexible office spaces to reflect the shift to a more agile workplace environment and build community hubs that improve people’s access to key services like healthcare and libraries and increase dwell time in towns and cities.
In recognising that there needs to be a rethink in how spaces are used, local authorities can put people back at the heart of our high streets and in doing so rebuild town and city centres across the regions.
Councils are struggling to meet their revenue needs and having to make tough decisions on council tax increases and the provision of essential services.
After decades of comparative underinvestment, communities across the North need to leverage investment and work together to advance opportunities to drive forward economic prosperity. While funding is now even more of a challenge, local authorities must use this unique opportunity to build a better, brighter future for communities in the North.
- Kate Howe is development director at Public Sector Plc
Public Sector Plc has seen a huge level of interest in its new Modern Methods of Construction net zero housing product – the first of which was installed in Kent in March. The solution provides a sustainable, high-quality product that can be delivered at pace and with greater cost certainty.
Kate spoke to Chi virtually at the North East Economic Growth and Development Conference. The above photograph has been created for illustrative purposes.