Data from the Office for National Statistics underlines the scale of the challenge that Barnsley and South Yorkshire faces in the aftermath of the pandemic. Redundancies are increasing faster than in the 2008 economic crash. Unemployment is surging to levels that we have not seen since the 1990s, when the Major Government’s pit closure programme ripped out the heart and soul out of Northern coalfield communities.
The brutal reality is that the toxic combination of Covid and a decade of central government austerity has served to level down our communities. Without decisive action – now – we are staring down the barrel of the painful economic history of the 1980s and 1990s repeating itself.
This week, the Prime Minister set out the roadmap out of lockdown. I know, from countless conversations I have had with local residents and business owners, that the lifting of restrictions cannot come soon enough. Everyone is fed up with restrictions on our daily lives; on the ability to see family, friends and loved ones; on the freedom of businesses to trade. We are all desperate for life to return to a sense of normality. The fantastic progress we are making on rolling out the vaccine is tangible proof that this return will happen, gradually, over the coming weeks and months.
The roadmap to recovery must be based on clear scientific and medical advice and, most importantly, it must not be rushed. Rushing to ease restrictions prematurely risks causing infection rates to creep back up and undoing the incredible sacrifice local people have made. As much as we all want to see restrictions lifted, this must be the last lockdown.
We cannot risk a divided recovery that further entrenches the inequalities that have held our country back for too long. That is why it is hugely frustrating that the roadmap did not come hand-in-glove with additional economic support for those communities hardest hit by the pandemic. We need more support for workers to self-isolate, so they don’t have to choose between their duty to their community and their livelihoods. With an estimated 20,000 people per day unable to afford to do the right thing, the Government should increase and extend isolation payments. Our businesses need a flexible furlough scheme and support for sectors under restrictions to provide the greatest possible cushion against for the impact of restrictions on the local economy.
Of course, economic support cannot just be about the here-and-now. Rishi Sunak should use next month’s Spring Budget to invest in our South Yorkshire Renewal Action Plan to safeguard and create jobs, drive up skills and transform our infrastructure. This would kick start our economic recovery and renewal from Covid and lay the foundations for a stronger, greener and fairer future for South Yorkshire’s people, businesses and places.
So far, the Government have stuck to a tried-and-tested (and repeatedly failed) model of attempting to rebuild the North from a desk in Whitehall. The solutions to unlocking growth have been focused on recycling old funding pots and pitting region-against-region, town-against-town to fight for scant resources. The Chancellor could start to demonstrate that his commitment to devolution is more than rhetoric by changing the remit of its new Levelling Up Fund, to enable us to unlock a pipeline of 6,000 highly-skilled jobs and £600 million of investment from firms looking to locate and grow in South Yorkshire.
At long last, we can begin to see the road back to normality; away from Covid and towards our economic recovery. But the proof of the pudding – whether investment and opportunity are fairly spread – will be in the eating at the Budget next month.