Dehenna Davison is MP for Bishop Auckland.
The past year has been tough. Nobody can deny that. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on us all; affecting society’s health – both physically and mentally – and hitting our economy hard.
We mustn’t underestimate the economic hit Covid-19 has delivered, a hit which has shone a light on many of the economic and social divisions that already existed in our society.
With the Chancellor saying in November that our economic emergency has only just begun, we must now look at how we can ensure we use the recovery in the most effective way to level up our country.
Levelling up is at the heart of what I came into politics to do. When I talk about levelling up, I’m talking about ensuring that whether you’re born in Bishop Auckland or Beaconsfield, Birkenhead or Bath, you have access to the same opportunities.
Right now, we see young people being pushed out of towns to cities like Newcastle, or down south to London, to chase those very opportunities. The Centre for Cities report, The Great British Brain Drain, has shown housing and transport infrastructure are the main barriers to young graduates returning to, or staying in, their hometowns.
Whilst the report focuses on graduates, it’s important to highlight the role inward local investment plays in creating those high-skilled job opportunities for non-graduates, such as through apprenticeships. We need to do more to prove to young people that there are other ways to get a high-skilled job than just moving away for university.
With the Government’s recent announcement on the Green Industrial Revolution, creating 250,000 jobs, we have a real opportunity to create those high-skilled, high-paying jobs in areas like County Durham.
We don’t have to look far to see what investment can do in helping to level up. Just look across to Tees Valley to see the great work Ben Houchen is doing as Mayor. With the South Tees Development Corporation, Tees Valley has been able to secure inward investment and redevelopment, ensuring a strong base for local job creation.
If you’re a young person in 2020, we know it’s tough to get on the housing ladder. Average house prices are more than four times higher now than in the 1990s, but the same has certainly not been the case for average earnings. We need to ensure that young people do not feel frozen out of the housing market. Schemes such as Help To Buy have been lifelines for many, but in many cases, the supply of good quality, affordable housing is also an issue.
The Government’s proposed planning reforms will have a great impact on house building, helping to ensure a generation of young people are able to access the same opportunities of home ownership that their parents had.
However, what is also highlighted in research on why people tend to move towards more urban areas is that it’s not just for a job, but for the overall living experience. People want to live in areas that are attractive, and where there are fun and engaging things to do. For example, in Bishop Auckland, I often receive complaints about the fact that the town doesn’t have a cinema.
But I have a plan. People want vibrant town centres, with a buzz of both day and night life, and good places to socialise. In this sense, investment in public realm works and cultural and leisure assets is crucial. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has stressed the idea of building well-connected communities in towns, where homes are blended with shops and civic buildings to create a real sense of place and community.
The Government is providing the tools for this, with £3.6 billion being invested through the Towns Fund alone. Bishop Auckland is benefiting from this scheme, adding to the cultural investment from The Auckland Project, together hoping to radically reshape the town centre to make it a more attractive place to live and work.
Strong public transport networks are also crucial. It’s all very well creating high-skilled jobs, but if people in certain areas can’t physically get to them, then the full benefit of levelling up efforts will always be limited. We are lucky to be living in a fast-moving technological age, so we need to be exploring options, like on-demand bus services, to provide transport routes in the most efficient and convenient way for consumers.
However, with Covid-19 accelerating workplaces’ adaptations towards working from home, this creates huge opportunities for areas that those working for firms based in major cities may not have ordinarily considered living in. Towns like Bishop Auckland could begin to market ourselves as ‘digital commuter towns’. Why shouldn’t we aim to attract those in highly-paid roles working for Manchester or London firms who are predominantly home-working? Why shouldn’t we aim to have more money being put into our local economy?
Yes, Covid-19 has presented many challenges, but it has also presented opportunities. As we focus on a recovery that aids levelling up, we need to look at ensuring that young people have multiple reasons to want to stay in their hometowns. That they’re able to aim for local, high-paid jobs, or opportunities from further afield that the digital age makes possible. That they’re able to settle down in the streets they grew up in, and they enjoy spending their free time where they live.
This is how we will truly deliver on the mission to level up.
This is part of Bright Blue’s essay series, Centre Write.