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Three ways to build back better in 2021

After last year’s turbulence, this new year is the moment to focus on building back better. Post-pandemic economic recovery is on everyone’s minds, even as we continue to grapple with the virus and the risks it brings. In the UK there is a clear political commitment to accelerate growth and increase opportunity beyond London and the South East. Levelling-up the North of England is a top priority, and we have three calls to action for 2021.

The UK government’s ten-point plan for a green recovery , announced in November 2020, is a both a roadmap for a sustainable future and a catalyst for growth and job creation. As a goal, net zero is broad and significant enough to be a powerful driver of the levelling-up agenda.

1. Speed: Use net zero to power recovery

The UK government’s ten-point plan for a green recovery , announced in November 2020, is a both a roadmap for a sustainable future and a catalyst for growth and job creation. As a goal, net zero is broad and significant enough to be a powerful driver of the levelling-up agenda.

How does net zero translate into growth in the North of England? The North already has emerging clusters of expertise in green energy and manufacturing. The North East, Tees Valley, Humber and Merseyside are building workforces skilled in offshore wind and hydrogen technology. The nuclear sector in Cumbria and Lancashire, and its supply chain, could deliver new small modular reactors. Major renewable and decarbonisation projects are proposed, such as tidal energy in the Mersey, carbon capture and storage in the Tees Valley and the Humber, expansion of district heating in Leeds, and through Manchester’s comprehensive climate change action plan.

The UK’s building stock is recognised as a significant source of national carbon emissions. A decarbonisation programme for the North of England’s homes, designed to deliver deep retrofits and low-carbon heating, would require rapid and substantial job creation.

A programme to strengthen the grid across the North to enable decentralised and renewable energy and electric vehicle charging would also generate new jobs for a net zero future. In addition, manufacturing of low-carbon vehicles should be encouraged – electric cars in Sunderland, lithium-ion batteries in Blyth, trains in Newton Aycliffe and Goole. 

 

2. Value: Invest in science and tech for long-term growth

The most successful places today are those that commercialise high-value products and services for export. Over time, the North of England must become home to a range of science and technology solutions that the wider world wants to use and buy. 

To achieve this will require sustained investment in research and development (R&D) and sound commercialisation of the best outputs. The North of England has the potential to scale-up science and technology clusters in industries such as health and life sciences, data science and fintech, creative and immersive tech, materials science and advanced manufacturing. 

This is both a short and a long game – the short game focuses on scaling-up existing businesses with high-value products and services that are capable of growing market share quickly, ideally in an international market. The long game is one of creating a culture and committing investment to the emergence of consecutive generations of high-value science and tech businesses.

Increasing and refocusing R&D investment will be essential. Government should set out a clear plan for more R&D spending in the North and give local areas more control over public sector R&D funds. We must make the commercial pull-through to create new products, processes and jobs stronger. This is what the “D” in R&D stands for, after all. Let’s take product development seriously.

We’re seeing valuable initiatives such as the Leeds City Region Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (developed with MIT), the Innovate GM initiative in Manchester, and the strategy in the North of Tyne area encouraging digital innovation in sectors such as social care, sub-sea engineering, and professional services. We need government at all levels to support district innovation proposals in the North, as this is what will allow emerging industries like smart mobility, health tech and 5G to flourish. 

 

3. Reshape: Level up our towns and cities

The North’s most economically productive places are a small number of dense city centres. Our own recent work for developers CEG demonstrates how Leeds city centre supports high concentrations of knowledge-intensive jobs. In urban development and regeneration projects, supporting growth in the knowledge economy is vital if investments are to work.

Some of our recent work on the future of offices points to an increasing need for city centres to provide the right types of workspace, public realm, amenity offer and quality of life to facilitate collaboration and innovation. The North’s towns and cities need to repurpose traditional retail centres and high streets to provide less (and different) retail floorspace and a wider mix of uses, including residential, leisure, public services and workspaces.

Over forty towns across the North are already being supported by the government’s Stronger Towns Fund. They are developing ambitious strategies and new partnerships for regeneration and economic growth. This work should be used as the basis for long-term, place-based plans to create new jobs, improve quality of life, and secure high-quality new development, including the right type of homes and neighbourhoods to support the modern economy. Existing government policies in this area could be extended to support a wider range of towns and act as a catalyst for new devolution deals. 

Better connectivity is another acknowledged, pressing need for the North. People must be able to develop their careers without moving home, while firms need to draw on a high-quality pool of potential workers and the North’s town and cities need better connectivity to generate agglomeration benefits. The Integrated Rail Plan for the North is eagerly awaited and local leaders are - rightly - making the case for the role of major rail projects in levelling up. 

Low-carbon connectivity schemes should be recognised as catalysts for wider regeneration. Arup’s work for Bradford Council demonstrates how Northern Powerhouse Rail could transform the role and shape of the city centre, one with a young and rapidly growing population of over half a million. Smaller connectivity schemes, including new active travel infrastructure, would also unlock new job opportunities, development sites, and support regeneration.

Perfect timing

Last year gifted us a new commitment to achieving change at pace. Long evolving trends around the digital economy, flexible working, new forms of mobility, changing leisure and retail preferences are intersecting. For the North of England, the levelling up agenda is now an opportunity to respond to these trends and to do so now, without delay.