Jonathan Walker, North East England Chamber of Commerce assistant director – policy, urges the Government to create a level playing field for economic recovery and subsequent growth in the post-COVID-19 period, and calls for the region’s business community to learn from past experiences and take new opportunities to succeed

The unemployment rate in the North East is 5.2 per cent, compared to the national average of 3.9 per cent.

Life expectancy is the lowest in the country.

We have the highest proportion of children in low income households in England.[1]

Does any of this seem fair?

Despite numerous Government initiatives over many years, to use the latest buzzwords, do we feel ‘levelled up’ in any way?

A huge part of my role, and that of the Chamber, is to talk up the region and shout about our opportunities. This is something I will passionately do every time I get the chance.

But to ignore the facts above would be to ignore the things that hold us back from achieving what we are capable of as a region.

It is only through identifying our challenges and calling out the inherent bias and disparities that exist in our political and economic landscape that we will make real progress.

In early August, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report[2] showing that wage growth in London has been 1.5 per cent since 2002, compared to 5.6 per cent across other regions.

The same report also stated that between 2008 and 2018, property and financial wealth grew on average by 150 per cent in London compared to just three per cent in the North East.

I know which of these two statistics stood out most to me. The headline used by The Times to report this? ‘Londoners hit as wage growth slows and housing costs jump.’[3]

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the disparities that exist in our society. If that is true, then they were hiding in plain sight.

What this crisis definitely does risk is making those inequalities worse and more entrenched.

Experience of previous recessions tells us that the consequences of economic downturns are more profound for places and people with the least capacity to withstand them.

Sadly, as the numbers above demonstrate, this is true for far too many places and people in the North East.

Whose responsibility is it to sort this out? Government undoubtedly has a big role to play in this.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but decades of underinvestment in infrastructure, incoherent education policies and the lack of a long-term industrial strategy have all served the North East poorly.

The Prime Minister adopted the tagline of building back better. But this must also mean building back fairer.

This means not only addressing the national decision-making processes that unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) favour more affluent areas, but going further by taking big, bold decisions to put money and power into the places that need it the most.

Policies that are ‘geographically blind’ and the idea of ‘levelling up’ are totally incompatible.

But we must also take our own share of responsibility for ensuring our economic recovery is fair, sustainable and builds on the strength and passion of our business community. The economic situation is tough, and, at the time of writing, it looks like we’re going to be living with COVID-19 for some time.

Yet just as we learn the lessons of previous recessions when it comes to
the negative impacts on our region, so we must also take heart from those who have demonstrated their resilience before and those whose business success was born out of the last financial crisis and recession.

As a region, we must be ready to make, and seize on, whatever opportunities
we can. We must continue to invest in training wherever possible to avoid a ‘lost generation.’

We must fight every day to be seen, heard, recognised and supported by decision-makers and influencers in the UK and around the world.

In September, the Chamber will be setting out its big campaign priorities
for economic recovery and growth. We’ll be putting the principles of community, fairness, sustainability and opportunity at the heart of everything we do.

We’ll work with our members to amplify our messages and to equip businesses with the knowledge they need to return to growth.

Things may well get worse before they get better; we are not simply going to shrug off the worst pandemic in a century.

However, there will be a time when things do improve and that is when we must avoid the trap of returning to the way things have always been.

If our campaigns are heard and acted on, I’m certain our region will be in a better place.

Others will decide whether we’ll have ‘built back better’, ‘levelled up’ or ceased to be ‘left behind’, but I’m sure we’ll all recognise a stronger North East economy when we see it.

References:
1 www.neechamber.co.uk/updates/policy/before-during-and-after-the-north-easts-economic-outlook
2 www.ifs.org.uk/inequality/geographical-inequalities-in-the-uk/
3 www.thetimes.co.uk/article/londoners-hit-as-wage-growth-slows-and-housing-costs-jump-rs2c5rb96