Young people in the Powerhouse: how do we build back better in the north?

Graham Duxbury
Friday, November 27, 2020

As the Chancellor was setting out his spending plans for the year ahead this week, including his pledge to ‘level up’ investment in the north of England, I and many others were hearing about the hopes, fears and expectations of people living in the north at the People’s Powerhouse convention.

It was fabulous to see the virtual stage given over to so many young people during the course of the event.

We know from previous studies – in particular the work of the children’s commissioner – that growing up in the north brings with it an additional level of challenge. We also know that Covid has had a disproportionate impact on the health of communities in the north and that lockdowns have been particularly damaging for young people in the same areas due to the high percentage in insecure work.

The Spending Review includes some big money programmes designed to mitigate the jobs crisis that Andy Burnham fears will take the north back to the worst conditions of the early 1980s. Kickstart, Restart and the other programmes announced will help in the short term, but we should also look further ahead at the kind of economy we might want to create as we recover – as this is the economic legacy we will pass on to the next generation. What does building back better actually mean, and will it work for the young people who are the sharp end of the crisis now?

If we’re intervening in the labour market to the extent that we are then we surely need to do that with a sense of the longer-term goal or purpose, so that the economy doesn’t revert to business as usual. After all, we know that business as usual wasn’t working for many young people in many communities, and more systemically wasn’t working for the north.

All the political rhetoric is of a greener recovery, which is obviously music to my ears.

Labour’s Green Economic Recovery Report called for £30bn of investment to create in the region of 400,000 new jobs in energy efficiency and renewables, hydrogen technology and carbon capture, electric vehicles and public transport and improving the natural environment. The Government’s own 10 point plan covers very similar ground, but with more modest ambition – 250,000 jobs in a decade through £12bn of public investment with the rest raised privately, much of it focused on the Midlands and the north.

For the plan to work for young people struggling in the labour market today, a number of conditions will need to be met.

First and foremost we need to follow through. This is a long-term plan and needs to stay at the forefront of economic policymaking rather than being window dressing in the run up to the COP26 climate summit in a year’s time. Kickstart is designed to last for 12 months – but we can all see a gap opening up which is longer than that.

In our drive to create new jobs we need to recognise that many young people struggle to access opportunities without support. The ten point plan concentrates on science and engineering-led growth. Finding routes for young people out of work now to bridge the gap into these new industries will be important – and should be one of the areas of focus for a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

This green job creation needs to sit alongside support for other sectors such as health, care, hospitality and leisure – traditional employers of young people and the basic social and civic infrastructure that makes our communities good places to live as well as good places to work.

Finally, if this is going to be a proper green industrial revolution then it needs to support the sustainability and resilience of local communities, and give young people a stronger voice in how those communities work. This means good quality jobs in places where people are, jobs that will outlast a ten-year construction boom, involving more organisations and enterprises that build and keep wealth in the local area – in short an economy that serves people and the planet, not the other way round. That would be building back better and give young people today more hope for tomorrow.

Graham Duxbury is national chief executive of Groundwork

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