How do we rebuild the north?
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 by our regions across the north.
At a time when very few women went into engineering Chi graduated in 1987 with a degree in electrical engineering. As an engineer Chi specialised in building out infrastructure in new markets and has decades of experience in the private sector before becoming an MP.
Over the past four years Chi has held shadow ministerial positions and she is now the Shadow Minister, Digital, Science and Tech.
As a born and bred Geordie, now living in Manchester, it was interesting for me to compare notes with Chi on the economic challenges and opportunities facing the North East and the similarity we have with the challenges facing the North West and the wider north post-Covid.
Chi highlighted research which showed the North East could lose up to 14 years of economic growth following a predicted 12% fall in Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2020 caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition, the North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber were forecasted 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 proposed to lose 4% of growth, which demonstrates further inequality in the economic robustness of the regions in comparison to London and it surrounds.
Among the things that we both agreed on is the enduring economic inequality that we see across the north of England and that this could be exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
The economic recovery from Covid-19 must be harnessed as an opportunity to address that inequality in the north.
As Chi highlighted, we need to get the recovery right for people and businesses.
Two areas of particular concern highlighted by Chi are the challenges facing our town centres and the human story behind the need for more housing.
Chi keeps a record of the most commonly flagged concerns raised by her constituents.
She said that housing has consistently been a top three concern for her constituents and has been every single month during the almost 11 years she’s been an MP.
She highlighted that the housing sector facing 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 trilemma of challenges is a significant problem across the whole of the north.
While the lack of housing supply is a huge challenge for families and young people across the north there is an opportunity here to deliver a new generation of housing which addresses these issues.
As a result of these pressures, we are seeing a huge level of interest in our MMC net zero housing product – the first of which was installed in Kent in March. Our solution provides a sustainable, high-quality product that can be delivered at pace and with greater cost certainty.
Covid has also had a devastating impact on local economies across the north particularly 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; research highlighted that while sales at department stores was expected to decline by over 60%, e-commerce was expected to grow by nearly 20% in 2020.
Local authorities are best placed to understand the needs of their areas and their communities, not just in terms of driving footfall to the high street, but also in terms of strategic property asset management and creating 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.
As strategic asset managers we help councils with all of the land and building needs.
We know that COVID-19 has changed the way that we work, live and shop and proven that millions of employees can productively work from home, including hundreds of thousands of council staff.
Some of these changes will become permanent. Indeed, large scale surveys of office workers have shown that going forward almost nine in ten (87%) want to work from home at least some of the time.
In line with the latest proposals from the Welsh Government to encourage hybrid working – a combination of office and homeworking – 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 north.
The final point we touched upon in our discussion, was that councils are struggling to meet their revenue needs and having to choose to make very tough decisions on council tax increases and the provision of essential services.
After decades of comparative underinvestment communities across the north need to leverage in investment and work together to advance opportunities to generate and drive forward economic prosperity for our communities.
While funding is now even more of challenge local authorities now have a unique opportunity to build a better, brighter future for communities in the north.
Let’s make it happen.
Kate spoke to Chi virtually at the North East Economic Growth and Development Conference and this photo has been created for illustrative purposes.