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Levelling Up the Agenda is Still Important


Assistant Director - Policy, Jonathan Walker's Column for the Journal

If you asked me to come up with a list of benefits that our new working arrangements have brought, then avoiding the regular pre-dawn starts to catch the train to London would be near the top.

I know there will be plenty of others in the business community who feel the same and there has been no shortage of commentators proclaiming a work from home revolution that will signal the end of business travel.

As much as I welcome the ability to speak to business contacts, politicians and other decision makers in my shorts, there will always be limits on what Zoom can do.

Businesses are made by the people who work in them and people are social beings. When it is safe to do so, I have no doubt people will want to meet, interact and do business face to face. A healthier, more productive working future will come from a blend of the digital and physical.

It is right to ask whether we’ll still travel in the same ways, at the same times and with the same frequency. But the need to get to places for business or work will still be there.

In a country with a tendency to dither when it comes to infrastructure decisions, we mustn’t allow this crisis, as severe as it is, to distract us from getting on with our long term priorities.

Before coronavirus hit, the Government set its National Infrastructure Commission the task of assessing how to deliver improved rail infrastructure in the North alongside HS2.

As you’d expect, we’ve chipped in; making the point that the benefits of any schemes will only be felt in our region if capacity and reliability issues on the East Coast Mainline are fixed.

This might seem like an odd time to be getting into the minutiae of transport policy, but this issue cuts to the heart of what is becoming increasingly obvious during this crisis.

The effects of Covid-19 and the recession we all expect will not be felt evenly across the country. As a region, we went into this with above average levels of unemployment as well as stark health and economic inequalities. Inevitably, the consequences of downturns hit hardest on those with the least capacity to absorb them.

Government should not lose sight of the ‘levelling up agenda’. Any recovery must be built on a principle of fairness, both between and within regions of the UK. Decisions at all levels, including about where to build railways, must recognise this.