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Empowering places to revive and thrive

Written by: Jim Hubbard, Head of Regional Policy, CBI

The Scale of recovery efforts requires all levels of government firing on all cylinders. A swift and sustainable recovery begins with ensuring the survival of as many livelihoods as possible. As we stem the bleeding of job losses, we must simultaneously look to revival, with an eye on the long-term vision for the UK’s economy which is intrinsically linked to the success of its places.

Businesses across the country whether located in Hounslow or Hull all want the UK to thrive. Though communities will face unique challenges such as low productivity, limited skills and poor infrastructure stalling their revival. In some cases, geography alone will determine whether businesses survive or stumble – and that unfairness must end. 

The Prime Minister has vowed to ‘unleash the potential of our whole country’ by investing in the infrastructure, jobs and skills needed to end regional inequality. His promise will have reassured those in England’s most disenfranchised corners that brighter days lie ahead.

Yet much has changed since the Government first revealed those levelling-up ambitions. A worldwide pandemic, an unprecedented economic crisis, and the looming spectre of a potential no-deal Brexit have made this a year like no other.

Last week, we listened to the Chancellor set out the Spending Review for 2020 which unsurprisingly focused on the government’s levelling-up agenda. And for good reason, there remain huge gaps in productivity and equality both within and between regions which has been a challenge for consecutive Prime Ministers and Chancellors. This has in part led to the existing Industrial Strategy as well as the focused refresh actively being considered.

What feels different from past Spending Reviews is the close attention being paid across the country in not only devolved nations, but also regions and communities across England focused on how businesses and by consequence people’s jobs will survive the next several months.

In the past, businesses have been agnostic on whether to devolve responsibilities and empower places, but this has been changing for some time. Firms will always be most driven by concrete outcomes such as building strong local labour markets, ensuring communities can adapt through robust digital and physical infrastructure, and creating ecosystems which encourage investment.

This will result in more jobs. Better jobs, greener jobs, in low-carbon and tech-rich industries. It involves improved access to training, an open door to lifelong education which equips workers with the skills they need – and which employers are crying out for.

It looks like improved connectivity, that gives communities active, integrated, flexible and sustainable travel. Faster trains, to new destinations, with greater capacity for passengers and freight. Cities and towns served by new cycling and walking networks, complemented by free-flowing roads and flourishing airports. A comprehensive 5G and broadband rollout which extends to all communities.

It looks like a business ecosystem which encourages entrepreneurial endeavour and rewards innovation. A supportive culture, that recognises the unprecedented challenges businesses currently face, but which gives companies the freedom and the confidence they need to invest and grow.

While business hasn’t always set out how we get to these outcomes, based on widespread consultation across the country and across a range of different businesses it has become clear that an element of success in ensuring the UK is prepared to compete globally involves empowering places.

Regional decision-makers being given the resources and the autonomy to target these ambitions at the areas that need help most. Tapping into local expertise and insight to ensure nowhere is left behind. We could start by urgently enabling local leaders to implement their local industrial strategies and recovery plans.

Revitalising the economy will be tough. There will be no quick fixes. Businesses have had to absorb a flurry of punches in 2020, and many remain on the ropes. But if the country is to enjoy the rapid revival we all hope for, we need to create the conditions which allow all businesses to contribute – wherever they are. No towns or cities can be left behind. A recovery driven by only limited pockets of prosperity cannot be considered a sound foundation for a fair and sustainable future economy.

In short, it looks like a future shaped by the recommendations in the CBI’s Reviving Regions report, published last month in partnership with Lloyds Banking Group. It is a paper which signposts a route to a fairer, greener future with increased opportunity and a better quality of life. A future from which we can one day look back at the economic struggles of 2020 as a bump in the road – but one which ultimately helped to set us on a path to a truly levelled-up UK.

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