Viewpoint: To deliver great jobs, we must to bridge Britain’s great regional divides

The TUC’s Silkie Whitworth discusses their new report on the industrial strategy: Great Jobs in Great Places

Britain is riven with inequalities.

Boys born in Chelsea can expect to live nearly nine years longer than those born in Blackpool.

Northern England’s premature mortality rate for young adults is almost 30% per cent higher than that of the South. The gap was two per cent in 1965.

Children are twice as likely to grow up in a workless household in North East compared to those born in the South East.

And men working in older industrial areas earn £200 a month less than the national average.

Getting a great job is key to decent living standards, but in some parts of the UK, your chances of getting one are much lower than in others. It’s yet another sign of a failing economy.

This isn’t to say you’re guaranteed a healthy, prosperous life if you’re born south of the Watford Gap. 27% of Londoners are living in poverty. And Norfolk and Suffolk are the most unequal counties in the country.

These inequalities are not inevitable, but the result of too much power resting with central government, and not with workers and local communities.

The UK is overwhelmingly centralised: central government is responsible for 72% of all public expenditure in the UK, compared to 35% in France and 19% in Germany.

On Monday, the TUC launched a new report: Great Jobs in Great Places. It looks at how an industrial strategy sensitive to the needs of different places can deliver great work everywhere.

It’s based on research we commissioned on regional industrial strategies for Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, and Norfolk and Suffolk, identifying challenges facing each region.

These include Brexit uncertainty, decarbonisation of industry, the precariousness of manufacturing and the rise of low productivity sectors, lack of investment, long-term skills shortages and a lack of adult retraining opportunities.

These are compounded by resource-poor local authorities and public services struggling with the impacts of austerity.

But each place is also home to unique challenges.

  • From the 1970s onwards, Liverpool City Region suffered a decline in both its manufacturing and service sectors. Unemployment was stubbornly higher than the national average and areas of poverty persisted. In the late 80s, the trend began to reverse with the help of EU funds. But since the financial crisis, unemployment and lower wages are back at worrying levels compared to other parts of the country.
  • Tees Valley’s well unionised steel, shipbuilding, oil, gas, chemicals and pharmaceuticals sectors provide skilled, highly productive jobs. But the region has been hit by industrial shocks over the years, including the collapse of SSI steelworks in 2015. It also has extremely high carbon emissions, which must be brought down if the UK is to meet its climate commitments.
  • The wealth of London and Cambridgeshire doesn’t extend to Norfolk and Suffolk. Employment is high, but productivity and wages are low. The population is aging and connectivity is poor, limiting the potential for great jobs.

To bridge these regional divides, we need central and local government to coordinate an industrial strategy that delivers in five key ways.

Firstly, we know that most businesses say their people are their greatest strength. So industrial strategy must use the workforce to drive up productivity. In every region, unions, businesses and government should come together through sectoral bodies and discuss how to boost pay, productivity and skills.

Secondly, we should make the most of local government, taking our lead from the Welsh government, which is using procurement to bring quality jobs to the most deprived communities.

Thirdly, we need to seriously invest in skills. In the UK, employer investment is half the EU average and government investment per employee fell by 13.6% between 2007 and 2015. These cuts should be reversed. Local government can encourage employers to invest in their people through procurement policies and signing up to regional employment charters. And England’s devolved Adult Education Budgets should be focussed on making sure workers who are unemployed, low paid or facing redundancy can access free training.

Fourthly, we need to invest in hard infrastructure. The magnitude of this task needs central government action, which is why next month’s Budget should set out a plan to bring government spending on infrastructure (2.7% of GDP) up to at least the OECD average of 3.5%.

Finally, we should deliver new jobs by tackling climate change. Carbon emissions in the Tees Valley are among the highest in the UK – and effectively tackling that problem will also create good quality new jobs.

The UK is at a crossroads, and the decisions we make now will shape the lives of a generation of working people. If we get them right, we can spread prosperity and opportunity to every part of the country.

Great jobs in great places

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