Roger Marsh OBE DL: 2021 can offer reasons for hope in the region

In his latest column for the Yorkshire Post, Roger Marsh OBE DL looks back over 2020 and at how West Yorkshire can forge a positive recovery in 2021 and beyond.

This past year has been a year like no other. From the more than quarter of workers in our region who were furloughed at its height during summer, to the 50,000 people who have been made unemployed since March, to the countless thousands of people who have had to adapt to new ways of working, it is no understatement that the pandemic has changed all our lives.  

The kind of upheavals we have lived through were unimaginable in peacetime, and sadly, the impact of pandemic impact will be felt for some considerable time to come. Our own estimates show the pandemic could leave West Yorkshire’s economy the size it was before the year 2000, wiping out two decades’ worth of hard-won growth and progress, with our job market potentially not getting back to where it was until 2025.  

But there are several reasons to be optimistic. West Yorkshire is an attractive region for investment. In recent months, the LEP has seen strong interest from many employers looking to establish or grow a presence here. Indeed, West Yorkshire is increasingly being seen as the preferred UK location for many businesses.  

Through necessity, we have also seen a flourishing of innovative new business practices. Whether that’s shops doing more online, or restaurants branching out into takeaway, or experimenting in other ways, we have seen some real innovation that will stand our region in good stead for the future. 

As a LEP, we have had the busiest year since I became Chair. Our business support teams have been inundated with requests for help from all corners of our region. Working with partner councils, we have helped channel £500 million in support grants to over 40,000 businesses, as well as putting in place programmes offering advice and guidance to help businesses navigate the difficult circumstances. 

In some respects, the pandemic has also provided fresh urgency to our drive to create an economy that works for everyone. For all of West Yorkshire’s success over the past decade in creating more and better jobs, we still have too many disadvantaged communities, for whom we need concerted action on skills, transport and other obstacles to achieving the standard of living we want to see for all.  

The West Yorkshire Economy Recovery Plan, created with the leaders of all five West Yorkshire Councils, and partners including unions, businesses and community organisations, sets out ambitious plans to address decades of under-investment in the region. 

It has the scope to create over 70,000 jobs in the zero carbon sector by the middle of the century, alongside thousands of new roles in the health and digital sectors, and support for high growth-potential start-ups and scale-up businesses. These are areas where West Yorkshire can make a real contribution to the UK recovery as well as addressing global challenges and delivering good jobs for local people

It was therefore a disappointment that the recent Spending Review did not include a commitment to support the Economic Recovery Plan. We will continue to press Government to support the West Yorkshire Economic Recovery Plan while also looking at how we can use the funding unlocked by our landmark devolution deal to help our region emerge from the pandemic as strongly as possible. 

However, I welcome the changes announced to the Green Book – the Treasury rules that determine whether an investment offers value for money. For too long investment has favoured projects in London and the South East where growth is highest, rather than in places like the North and other less productive regions where it is most needed, exacerbating the productivity gap.

Looking ahead to 2021, we’re under no illusions that next year will be a challenge like no other. With unemployment set to rise further, we can only hope that the mass roll-out of vaccines is a literal and figurative shot in the arm for people’s confidence and the economy. If we can return to something close to normal then we might hope the recovery, when it comes, may be stronger and more rapid than is currently being predicted.  

The UK is also set to leave the EU at the end of the year. At the time of writing there is no agreement on future trading relationships. The LEP’s business support teams have received increasing volumes of highly technical questions around issues like tariffs and export arrangements, which reflects both the complexity of the changing situation and the uncertainty businesses are facing.  

We must be realistic that there will be disruption whatever shape our future relationship with the EU takes. But we must also be optimistic that there are global opportunities with markets we haven’t yet fully engaged with that can be developed.  

On a more positive note, next year will also see devolution come to West Yorkshire, with the election in May of the region’s first mayor. Devolution promises to be a game-changer, unlocking significant new funding and powers and meaning that more of the decisions that have a major impact on our region will be taken here.  

As a region, we have proven time and time again what we can do when given the opportunity and control over our own destiny, as our track record with the £1 billion Growth Deal secured by the LEP shows, generating at least £4 of private investment and £10 in added value in the economy for every £1 of public money spent through it.     

All that remains to is wish everyone a happy Christmas and a more prosperous new year. 

Roger Marsh OBE DL, Chair of the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and NP11 group of Northern LEPs