It is difficult, at this stage, to get a handle on how much the COVID-19 pandemic might actually cost us. We face, what could possibly morph into, the worst recession since the Second World War.
The lockdown is leading to a fall in the UK’s economic output of approximately 31 per cent according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), one of the UK’s leading economic consultancies. The Cebr has supplied independent economic forecasting and analysis for 25 years. It has a wide range of clients across the whole spectrum of economic activity in the UK. They claim to “make academic strength economics digestible to business and Government”. No small achievement.
Our production sector is down 69 per cent and our accommodation and food sectors are down 79 per cent on pre-covid levels.
Cebr founder Professor Douglas McWilliams said, “These results show that the manufacturing sector, as well as the more obvious sectors such as retail and leisure, is one of the more badly hit by the virus and economic slowdown.”
We face a major downturn in our economy; not good for us as individuals, nor our region, or indeed our national economy.
So what can we do about it?
The first thing we must do is to realise that we have been here before. The standard thinking towards the end of the Second World War was that Europe and the USA would sink into a deep depression. Paul Samualson, a future Nobel Prize winner, wrote that there would be, “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced”.
There were different voices which fortunately prevailed by the conclusion of the Second World War. The economist William Beveridge presented a brave new vison in 1942 of what post-war Britain could look like. His report, laid the foundation for the sweeping reforms of the Attlee Administration 1945–1951. This administration created the welfare state and the National Health Service, it must be said, against fierce opposition from the established health professionals of the time. These institutions are now considered national treasures that all parties, at least say, they will defend and cherish to the end of time. The 1945 election result delivered a political earthquake in the UK; perhaps we need to realise the same ambition now, as we emerge from our own role in the international struggle against COVID-19.
We could establish the scale of our ambition by creating a Government-funded Personal Education Allowance for all workers whose jobs have disappeared. This fund would allow any member of the UK workforce to retrain for up to three years from September 2020. This would fill many empty college or university places from this autumn and would allow experienced workers the opportunity to stake a new claim in the post-Covid economy with a new skillset funded by the Government. The ambition is huge but so is our current predicament. We have done it before in 1945, when we were a much poorer country in a much less connected world.
The Green New Deal has to be at the centre of the UK economy going forward. This should be the cross-party foundation on which we rebuild our economy. This is our opportunity to tackle climate change, decarbonise our economy and establish social justice at the heart of our economic and political policies from 2020.
A Green New Deal workforce would allow sustainable businesses the opportunity to access skills, grow quickly and take advantage of new opportunities in Yorkshire and further afield that will bring prosperity back again. Refunding the pre-Covid economy will only reinforce the zero hours contracts, the dependency on Universal Credit and the need for Foodbanks to feed our below the Poverty Line poor. Who wants that? I would argue that no one does.
Sir Keir Starmer, the newly elected Leader of the Opposition, stated on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday 5th April 2020 that, “We are going to have to do things differently, we are going to have to build a better future”. We congratulate him on his success and welcome his recognition that we are on the brink of a period of major change both nationally and locally.
So what could this mean in Yorkshire?
If we accept that the future cannot be a repeat of the past then we must encourage new ideas here in Yorkshire. The desire for good leadership and vison for the future runs deep. We need local leaders who have stepped up to the plate. Support for this point of view runs across all parties. Indeed Paul Baverstock, a former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party has recently chastised the local Conservative Party in Harrogate for being “invisible” during the crisis. This is written by a concerned resident with an implacable track record of service to his party and an excellent take on what is needed now at this time of crisis.
We need to plan now and say what we are going to do with the empty shops in our towns and villages. What will we do in the hill farming areas of the Dales that are suffering from the twin whammies of Brexit and COVID-19? Their money is fast running out and with the country in lockdown, they have few opportunities to sell their wares or cater for much needed visitors.
We need new thinking for these areas, joined up Yorkshire-wide thinking that will deliver monetary support into new ideas, new land uses and support the entrepreneurs of tomorrow rather than simply attempt to recreate the Yorkshire that many knew and loved. We need to put our money where our mouth is and trust that the new ideas will deliver a better future. Perhaps a Yorkshire-wide conference to establish the post-Covid vison for the county would be a start. Such a conference of local leaders in York may put the York back into Yorkshire, give us hope and identify those who may be the people with the ideas for the next generation.
Let us use this opportunity, this unique moment in our regional and national history to write a new, greener future for Yorkshire and the rest of the UK. Thatcher’s ‘market’ isn’t good enough to get us back on track. Let us put public money into local winners who will deliver the well-paid jobs of the 20s and 30s that Yorkshire needs to re-establish our place in the UK, Europe and the world. There is such a thing as community and society and we all have a role to play in keeping it in good health for the next generation.