The view from Leeds, Barnsley, Hull and Scarborough on levelling up
The phrase ‘levelling up’ is all the rage in Westminster. It’s now got its own civil service department and some say it’s the agenda that can help the Prime Minister win back the hearts and minds of the country (or his backbenchers at least).
No-one is exactly sure what ‘levelling up’ actually means. But if we take its basic premise that Britain is beset by big economic divides between different parts of the country that need to be closed then that resonates with the public. Over three-in-five people say they are concerned about inequalities between places – a bigger concern than any other type of inequality.
Political and public consensus over the need to tackle this issue is a great starting point. But the challenge of actually closing economic gaps between places is fraught with difficulties, not least because different places are, well, different.
In order to understand this challenge better, colleagues and I wanted to hear views from people from all walks of life about how to boost local economic prosperity. And where better to canvas views than across Yorkshire – specifically a major city (Leeds), a well-connected town (Barnsley), a less well-connected smaller city (Hull), and a further-afield seaside town (Scarborough).
Two common themes that came across to everyone we spoke to: a strong sense of pride in their local area, coupled with a strong sense that things needed to improve. A third, and related, commonality was that people had realistic views of how their local area could be improved.
Not everywhere can be the next tech hub or the home of the green revolution and people understand this.
Instead, our focus group participants acknowledged that major investment would inevitably flow to big cities like Leeds, and were well attuned to their local areas’ own economic advantages, such as cheap land and great motorway access that made Barnsley a hot spot for warehousing, and Yorkshire’s beautiful coastline that brought financial and non-financial benefits to Scarborough.
For a fast-growing city like Leeds, the optimism about its potential was mixed with concern about the side effects of success – high inequality and high housing costs that would make it even harder to enjoy life there. London offers a sobering lesson in this respect.
The people we spoke to in Barnsley, Hull and Scarborough had different concerns – notably the lack of good quality work. Issues around low pay, insecure work and a lack of routes into better paid jobs came across strong. The lesson for policy makers here is that when there is an abundant quantity of work across Britain as there is today, the quality of that work really matters to both individuals, and the wider community too. Of course, high quality work exists outside major cities, the growing green tech industry surrounding Hull is a vivid example of that. But, as our participants noted, access to those jobs is a real problem.
For all the talk of new public transport infrastructure, it was very apparent from the people we spoke to that the car is still king when it comes to accessing work.
These views are strongly backed up by the evidence, too – our research shows that people living in core cities (like Leeds and Manchester) can get to seven-times more jobs in a 30-minute commute by car than if they commute by public transport. In smaller towns, using a car means being able to access 28-times as many jobs.
This is not to say that we should abandon plans for more buses, trams and trains in Yorkshire and double down on motorways. But it does mean that if we do want to encourage people away from car use, public transport improvements will need to be done at scale.
Another issue that really touched a nerve was ‘mobility’ – people leaving their home town to find better work elsewhere. This is a phenomenon beloved by economists – it leads to higher pay individuals and better matches firms with the skilled workers they need – and hated by politicians, who seem affronted by the youth exodus of ‘left behind’ towns.
The public, though, are (rightly) on the side of economists, and were positive about young people seeking better opportunities elsewhere. That’s encouraging given that in small towns – one-in-three 18 to 19-year-olds leave their local area, often for university.
The real problem here is that leaving home for pastures new is the preserve of the already well-heeled. Young people from prosperous areas are twice as likely to leave home as those from deprived areas, who risk getting stuck in the low-paid, insecure local labour markets that our focus group participants warned about.
Finally, one concrete, practical suggestion for improving local prosperity that came across from all the people we spoke to was to start with the centre – our high streets and town centres really matter to people as a places to work, meet, spend their money and even live.
This article originally appeared inThe Yorkshire Post