Community needs to be at the heart of ‘levelling-up’


By Debbie Francis, City Executive for the North at Arcadis and board representative to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

The spread of Covid-19 has drastically changed how communities live, travel and behave. From breaking old certainties to the acceleration of new trends, it has forced us to quickly adapt to new ways of living. While some of the longer-term effects may take years to be fully understood, there is a now a pressing need for action to rebuild our economy and level up. We must work to understand the new landscape and the opportunities it could bring across our great Northern Cities. Most importantly, we have the chance to radically re-think how we view our communities and live our lives.

Stronger communities

Stronger communities need to be at the heart of the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. This must involve a renewed focus on the principles of community wealth building, rolled-out successfully in Preston, and the ideas around a ‘15-minute community’ to improve health, homes and mobility. More than ever the private sector has an essential role to play supporting local authorities in managing these challenges and delivering stronger communities. It is critical we do not forget the placemaking opportunities associated with major rail and station investment, as seen at London Kings Cross-St Pancras. This project involved £2.2billion of private investment including new offices, jobs and homes in the area. We want to see this kind of regeneration replicated in our northern cities.

Developing skills and training also remains critical if we are to meet the levelling-up agenda. Major rail investment addresses the government’s post-Covid recovery by protecting jobs, upskilling young people and kickstarting the economy. HS2 alone requires 30,000 people to design and build the railway, as well as 2,000 apprentices.

Engineers of the future

At Arcadis, we are working with schools to help them transform how they deliver their educational courses to achieve better outcomes. For example, our colleagues have been providing voluntary support to skills and educational programmes in Bradford through the Ahead Partnership, to ensure the future labour force is equipped with the necessary skills. This targets schools within some of the most deprived areas of the city and is an effective way in increasing attainment, raising aspirations and improving inclusivity. The entrepreneurial and technology skills being nurtured in Bradford will support a more dynamic local labour market that works for all.

It is important to remember the economic and social sustainability benefits that come with major rail projects. Northern Powerhouse Rail, for instance, would bring 10 million people within 90 minutes of major Northern cities, improving connectivity and job opportunities. HS2 is integral to the governments’ Industrial Strategy, designed to increase economic growth, create careers, and secure investment. In Leeds alone, HS2 Growth Strategy will pump an extra £54billion into the regional economy while in Middlesbrough, the local college had the foresight to invest £20million in STEM training centre to capitalise on the scheme. Hundreds of students are already getting the hands-on experience they need to excel in well paid careers in professions such as civil engineering, electrical engineering and construction management.

The climate emergency

We also can’t forget the climate emergency. The pandemic may have taken it off the front pages, but it will be back with bigger and bolder ambitions. As we look to forge a successful post-COVID recovery, it is crucial we all embrace the opportunity and not only build back better, but build a healthier, greener and more inclusive society.

New infrastructure should be done in a way that not only reduces carbon impact, but in a way that actively contributes to wider and longer-term carbon reduction. While we need to be very mindful of the construction and operational impacts. HS2 must form a crucial part of the transition to net zero. We need to see a shift to low-carbon mobility, and HS2, as a high capacity fully electrified railway, is key to this.

This must be achieved through a shared recovery between local authorities and the private sector. Tackling these challenges successfully is going to be complex and will take time, but we have a once in a generation opportunity to rise to the challenge. Further devolution to empower stronger communities is integral to bridging the North-South divide.

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