PM Boris Johnson is continuing his ‘levelling up’ agenda by promising big things for the North. Under plans outlined in the Queen’s speech today, the PM is set to bring jobs and skills direct to “red wall” areas so people can improve their job prospects in the communities where they were raised and brought up.
Labour’s “red wall” across the Midlands and the north of England has been the heartland of the party’s support for generations. While Johnson’s move seeks to attract new voters and safeguard existing voters for the next election, it also takes note of the stark economic divide highlighted by the pandemic.
Although the capital suffered an early peak of the virus in April, it was the towns and cities of the north that formed a Red Wall of higher than average death rates. The virus spread fastest in the north, which brought tougher lockdown measures to the region, hitting the local economy hard. A recent Office for National Statistics report identifies northern England as having the highest share of jobs in ‘at risk’ sectors, as a combined result of Brexit and the pandemic.
The economies of the transpennine large towns and cities are almost entirely reliant on three sectors: hospitality and events, health and social care, and universities. On the outskirts of these urban locations are the logistics warehouses and meatpacking factories that keep unemployment rates down but mostly offer casual unskilled work. In a bid to change this, the message to ‘live local and prosper’ will include a lifetime skills guarantee, a strengthening of further education, and an adult education and training system that’s ‘fit for the future’.
Investment in further education and lifelong upskilling could mean that people can remain in their area of choice rather than having to move to a new area to better their prospects. The north has already been designated as the launchpad for Johnson’s green recovery bill ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow later this year. Ex-mining towns like Blyth on the Northumberland coast are earmarked for major innovation. Britishvolt will build the UK’s first gigafactory in Blyth to support the government’s ambitions of creating a home-grown electric car industry. The £2.6bn battery production centre will create up to 3,000 jobs in the town by 2027.
The town is also the UK site for the high voltage subsea interconnector linking Norway and Britain and the research base for the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult. Blyth’s major transport links and easily accessible renewable energy makes it an ideal location for the world’s ‘cleanest and greenest battery facility.’ Blyth Valley MP Ian Levy, whose victory was part of the Tories’ sweep of red wall seats, said the investment “will have a massive impact in the constituency and the surrounding area for decades to come.”
The message to ‘live local and prosper’ makes sense in the wake of the pandemic’s economic fallout. According to research by PwC, city-dwellers are now rethinking their living arrangements and re-evaluating the importance of larger homes, green spaces and connections with the local community. The shift in attitude towards city living means that the population of the UK’s capital city could fall in 2021 for the first time in more than 30 years. Meanwhile, the increase in remote working could further aid attempts to stop the ‘brain drain’ to the cities, particularly among the graduate population.
The message marks a historic switch from the Tory message of the past, which encouraged people to move to find better jobs. As the economic tide turns in the face of the pandemic, it’s an opportunity to redistribute the wealth, skills and opportunities that will be key to the levelling up agenda. Contractors are encouraged to think outside the location box when it comes to the best opportunities, particularly in growth areas such as green energy, construction and remote finance.
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