The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, but already we are seeing the huge strain that it is placing on our communities here in West Yorkshire. Our social and political landscape is changing fast, and it is becoming increasingly clear that regions like ours and towns like mine need support. As we build towards next year’s local and mayoral elections, people here will vote for the political parties and the leaders who have a focused plan.
Our actions in recent months have rightly been focused on trying to stop the spread of the virus, to care for those people who are infected, to protect those most at risk and to hold together our society and our economy. As well as the tragic loss of life from this virus, it has become crystal clear that we are also facing the worst global economic crisis since 1945. Much of our region was already struggling before this current crisis due to the decline in manufacturing and swingeing cuts to local authority budgets.
West Yorkshire still retains some fantastic assets, including world class universities and a financial district in Leeds that is second only to London. But this just provides an additional level of complexity in a devolution package which could set the needs of thriving economies in Leeds, and smaller knowledge hubs in villages like Slaithwaite or Hebden Bridge, up against those who are just trying to survive in the other areas of West Yorkshire.
Against this backdrop, we’re going to need a mayor with bold interventions to prepare workers for the 21st century jobs market, repurpose and ‘green’ our urban centres and improve our health and resilience.
Skills for the future
The CBI estimates that as many as nine out of ten people currently in work need to retrain or reskill over the next ten years. Here in West Yorkshire, we will need to support many thousands of people of all ages if we are going to enable businesses here to remain competitive in an increasingly digital and hi-tech economy.
There has long been a gap in what business says it needs – people able to synthesise lots of data, write computer code, solve problems or manage teams effectively – and the skills being developed by traditional learning routes.
This problem in the supply chain of skills requires urgent attention, and a West Yorkshire mayor must bring together small and large businesses, trade unions, colleges, universities and the enterprise teams from our local authorities to tackle this issue.
The government’s recently launched Kickstarter Programme provides a welcome place from which to start but the picture is very different in West Yorkshire to London and the South East. It is also changing almost on a daily basis, which means this process must be agile – a test and see approach that delivers at pace, responds to evidence and is not afraid to change course quickly if programmes are not working.
Repurposing our town centres
Online retailing has reduced footfall hugely and forced many retailers to close and/or consolidate into the region’s commercial centres, such as Leeds, where thousands of office workers are present during the week. This shift to online – away from the high street – has been accelerated by the Covid-19 lockdown, and with many people also now working from home there is increasingly a problem even for thriving commercial centres such as Leeds.
In this new digital and decentralised world of work, there are huge productivity gains that come from a workforce that converts hours spent crammed on trains or stuck in traffic jams into hours working, exercising, eating properly and/or walking children to school. In addition to the economic and social benefits of working from home, there are also sizeable cuts that can be made to our carbon emissions by pushing down the number of journeys we all make.
A West Yorkshire mayor must have the confidence to review the evidence, talk to workers, talk to employers, talk to parents and explore new technologies in order to design urban spaces and transport systems that respond to our new situation.
We are already entering a world where online shopping deliveries take up more of our transport capacity and where people are mainly going to the hairdresser or visiting a cafe in their local high street rather than visiting town centres. In that context, hydrogen-fuelled or electric vehicles could provide a better way to address our climate crisis than more public transport, and our town and city centres may be better off as a series of ‘mini villages’ connected by cycling highways and walking routes.
We need our mayor to lead the civic innovation that will enable our councils, business groups and residents to work together on this journey.
Building health and resilience
In this new world, we also need a mayor who can use their skills and influence to deliver a public health system which is fit for the 21st century. Countries that have invested more in health education and digital healthcare programmes, such as Germany, South Korea and Japan, have so far responded better to the threat of Covid-19 and are building back their economies more quickly.
The current devolution deal already provides the new mayor with an opportunity to create an ActEarly North Institute, which will build on the success of the ActEarly pilot project run by the Bradford Institute of Health. The institute provides the platform from which to deliver better public health locally, while at the same time promoting economic development by positioning West Yorkshire globally at the forefront of innovation in lifelong preventive health care.
This is an opportunity to improve the lives of every local citizen whilst also securing thousands of new jobs, so the new mayor must make this a priority on day-one of their administration and must have the skills and experience to deliver this project.
They must be able to reach out beyond the five local authorities that are within the mayoral deal so that we can build on the existing collaboration between West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health Care Partnership and academic institutions across Yorkshire. They must ensure that the different innovation hubs that will make up the institute are spread evenly across West Yorkshire so that this does not just become a Bradford and Leeds initiative.
To do this, we need a mayor who can forge fresh relationships between the private and the public sectors. Our local authorities and health bodies need private enterprise and innovation if they are going to tackle the health, social and environmental challenges ahead. This does not mean outsourcing profitable services to the private sector, but instead facilitating collaboration to generate new products and services that respond to local need.
The pandemic is giving us the chance to reboot our approach to human values, where everything is truly valued, including the joy and mental wellbeing that human contact brings. With public finances stretched, private enterprise could and should be encouraged to help society keep its dignity and purpose, with greater investment into the wellbeing of our local communities.
We need a mayor who is not afraid to use the current West Yorkshire deal as a stepping stone to greater devolution, and to build back our communities better by bringing a new and more collaborative approach to the way that public sector programmes are designed and delivered in our region.