I’ve lived and worked in the North East of England all my life, working in the public and charity sector, being involved with community and voluntary organisations, I’ve been a City Councillor in Newcastle and been involved with a number of campaigns. I have been part of the establishment and I have also advocated for change.
Since lockdown, I’ve been working with a range of voluntary sector leaders locally, trying to support them through the difficulties that are being experienced now and will be worsening in the future. I’ve also been fortunate to link in to several policy groups and seminars regionally and nationally. I’ve heard lots of great ideas and the desire to ‘do it differently’, particularly against a background of climate change and the increasing inequalities.
This is clearly a pivotal moment for the North East and it is absolutely imperative that we use this precious chance to create a positive future. It is not about trying to go back to life before lockdown, as life wasn’t very good for far too many North East residents and communities. Nor should this be about institutions and their powers, but about citizens, communities and neighbourhoods.
This is clearly not an ‘equal opportunity virus’, Covid-19 particularly affects older people, people with underlying health problems, people from particular minority ethnic communities and people living in poverty. Economic health cannot and should not be separated from the health of local communities.
The ERG’s Plan
So you can imagine my disappointment when I was sent a summary copy of the ‘Plan for Recovery’ by the North East Covid-19 Economic Response Group (or ERG), which aims to make the case for future investment in the North East. Don’t bother looking for the full document as it’s not publicly available.
This Group is led by the NE Local Enterprise Partnership and includes the North East and North of Tyne Combined Authorities, the CBI, the North East Joint Transport Committee and the region’s universities. Basically it is an attempt by the establishment to press the reset button and (re)try activities that haven’t worked well in the past.
What’s the problem with the Plan? It’s the lack of consultation, the content (see below), the paucity of innovation, fleeting references to climate change, the failure to recognise the importance of tackling child poverty and childcare, the need to focus on young people and ultimately on wider wellbeing.
The Plan process has been exclusionary and completely failed to recognise that our communities have lost trust in the people in power. One of the best features to emerge from this crisis has been the offers of kindness and support from local people. We do care about our neighbours, friends, families and communities. People want to engage in a response and be trusted, but also to trust their leaders. Trust has to be earned, and another set of high level polices written without engagement, involvement, consultation or checking with communities is not likely to be accepted.
The Plan’s contents are an excuse to wheel out a set of tired policies that have failed the North East previously. There are vested interests which reflect the interests of those who wrote the document, rather than those they will impact. The analysis sets out the current scale of the challenge – but then fails to offer any innovation, excitement, opportunities or creativity about how the North East could shift to put wellbeing, tackling inequalities and climate change at our core. Not only is “Providing advice and support to businesses” dull, but it should be happening in any case. There need to be more cross-cutting ideas, such as more investment in care and housing as a way of improving quality of life and creating jobs.
The lack of innovation and challenge and thinking differently exposes a set of organisations who are (rightly) worried about their budgets, roles and power in the future. This government appears to want to centralise and control. But devolution from Whitehall to Town Hall wouldn’t necessarily deliver difference, and some of our existing economies (hospitality, tourism, leisure and retail) are never going to get back to their 2019 position (which was already starting to falter). This is the time to change: invest in care, young people, community-based arts and culture, in very local areas and communities – and give them resources.
The North East of England was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, we can once again be at the forefront of sweeping changes: a Green Industrial Revolution, clever use of technology and Artificial Intelligence. We can continue to work with our partners in the rest of the UK and internationally (particularly given the Brexit position). Every new step taken should be measured against how it will reduce climate change, which is a far greater threat than Covid-19.
But where to start? A key area for focus must be young people who have been let down badly in terms of opportunities. We need to give all 18-25 year olds a guaranteed job, paid at the Real Living Wage for (at least) six months. Young people need opportunities through recreation, sport, culture and youth services.
Young people are also our best hope for reducing climate change. They need opportunities to do worthwhile volunteering – a conservation corps, a national youth environment programme and to engage with nature and the environment. They need a future.
We must invest equally in all 18-year-old school and college leavers, whether or not they go to university. The ERG’s offer of an ’educational challenge’ is not new and has already failed to get off the ground so many times.
Our future needs to be measured differently: not just by GDP, but by wellbeing and happiness and how we live our lives. The North East of England has many children, families and others living in poverty. Unless we all work together, and differently, poverty in the North East will increase. We will see greater community divides, an increase in ill-health and morbidity, greater crime and unrest. This will become a less pleasant place to live, work and visit.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been rightly lauded as a leader who has managed the coronavirus situation well. She said recently “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success. It is failure”. The North East’s ERG, needs to look honestly at what they’re proposing and whether this really addresses the challenges ahead.