Recovery has to put people first

West Yorkshire's recovery from COVID-19 must be one that puts people and skills front and centre, and offers hope and prosperity for the future, says Roger Marsh OBE DL in his latest column for the Yorkshire Post.

As restrictions have eased over the past few weeks, with shops and other services reopening, we have seen life returning to our streets. Looking past the masks and new rules around social distancing, it’s easy to think that the world is returning to something like its old ways.

But the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for a long time to come. Our task at hand as leaders of West Yorkshire’s business community is to steer the region’s economy in a direction that offers hope and prosperity for the future.

This is why the West Yorkshire Economic Recovery Board has been created, bringing together local authority leadership, the LEP, public partners, trade unions and the private and third sector.

Its goal has been to develop robust plans for the region’s recovery and to help build an inclusive and sustainable economy for the future, that offers the prospect of good jobs and skills, supported by the right infrastructure to enable future growth.

The board’s draft plan integrates with those of local authorities and health and transport plans. It sets out actions needed for a locally-led recovery that builds on the West Yorkshire’s strengths and puts in place measures to support jobs, develop skills, and accelerate investment in infrastructure, supported by transport options that allow people to travel in safety and with confidence.

Running through it is the firm belief that recovery efforts must be led locally if they are to be successful - focused on our local needs and led by those who know the West Yorkshire people and its economy.

Understanding the impact of COVID-19

We cannot underestimate the impact of COVID-19. Working with Experian, the Combined Authority has developed a range of forecasts to model the potential impact of the pandemic on the West Yorkshire economy. These show that under a worst case scenario, the pandemic could cost the West Yorkshire economy £12 billion this year and shrink it by up to a third in 2021, with unemployment potentially rising to 14%, and a resulting £2.4 billion impact on the Government's finances.

Behind those numbers is the considerable human impact of the pandemic. The past few months have seen a terrible loss of life, while frontline and essential workers have worked tirelessly to keep vital services, industries and shops open. Thousands of people are working from home, many juggling employment with schooling their children, and more than 300,000 people across West Yorkshire have been furloughed and must anxiously await news about the future of their jobs.

Our modelling predicts that there could be up to 58,000 jobs lost in 2020, with the local job market not returning to its pre-crisis employment level until late 2025. This is why the recovery for West Yorkshire must be one that puts people first.

In the face of COVID impacting hardest on the poorest and most disadvantaged, the draft plans have a priority to reduce inequality, increase inclusivity, and build a resilient and sustainable environment for the region’s shared future.

The economic recovery plan has identified health tech, digital, entrepreneurs and the transition to a net zero carbon economy as distinct areas where our region can make a contribution to the national recovery and deliver Government’s leveling-up agenda, building on our diverse communities, industry strengths and institutions.

The plans will be the basis of discussions with Government on the support the region needs and how West Yorkshire can contribute to the national recovery effort. The initial asks of Government set out in the plan total £1.1bn.

A recovery by and for the North

As chair of the NP11 group of Northern LEPs, I believe wholeheartedly that the North has an integral role to play not just for the UK but for the global recovery. From coast to coast, our regions have unique strengths and comparative advantages that can be leveraged for national and international benefit.

In West Yorkshire, our health sector is an internationally significant centre for med-tech innovation and R&D, while the Humber is rapidly becoming a centre for new hydrogen industries that promise a transition to the low or zero carbon economy we need to tackle the climate emergency, to give just two examples.

Just as the North’s past was pivotal in creating the modern world through the industrial revolution, it can forge a new leading role for itself in the post-COVID era.

Doubtless, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest challenge most of us have seen during our lives. The past few months have challenged our social, economic and commercial institutions, overturning many long-held assumptions about how we live, work and see ourselves.

All of us have a duty to act and do our bit to build a recovery that develops thriving, innovative businesses that will in turn create good quality jobs and give people a decent standard of living. The West Yorkshire Economic Recovery Plan is a step on that road - and one that our region stands united to take together.

Roger Marsh OBE DL is chair of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and the NP11 group of Northern local enterprise partnerships. This article originally appeared in the Yorkshire Post.