Reasons to be Optimistic?

Dr Peter O’Brien, YU Executive Director

January was a tough month. The festive season felt like an age ago, and more eye-watering energy bills landed on household doormats. Personally, it was particularly heart-breaking to watch a recent ITN report about elderly residents in Newcastle who were living in freezing conditions, and not switching on their heating, because they feared rocketing gas and electricity prices. The direct impacts of a cold, damp British winter climate, at a time of high costs, upon the most vulnerable in society (coupled with the added pressures faced by an over-stretched health and care system), are unconscionable. As food inflation also hits 16%, the decision of when or whether to heat or to eat has become an invidious choice for too many people. The trend of declining health was illustrated in the starkest of terms when, figures published by the Office for National Statistics, at the end of January, revealed a 15% increase in deaths in England and Wales, compared to the five-year average.

Responding to claims that the UK faces an existential crisis, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, called for a more optimistic approach to drive growth and prosperity, and the rejection of so-called ‘declinism’. The Chancellor did, however, agree that uneven and lower growth in the British economy was being driven by poor productivity, skills gaps, low business investment and the over-concentration of wealth in the South-East. New forecasts, by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), amplify these structural weaknesses, and highlight some other immediate problems, including: the UK’s high sensitivity to energy prices: a shrinking workforce: rising taxes and interest rates; and Brexit. The IMF suggests that the UK economy will be the only major country to see its economy contract this year.

Drilling down from a macro-level, and delving further into local and regional economic performance, the new Cities Outlook 2023, published by the Centre for Cities, finds that official unemployment figures mask large numbers of hidden workers in cities and large towns in the North of England. These findings echo research by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, which has demonstrated, over a period of time, that hidden unemployment is a persistent problem, with a persistent geography. The causes of these profound inequalities are complex, and they have contributed towards the UK being the most regionally unbalanced large, advanced economy. Continued and widening regional divides are said to necessitate more longer-term place-based investment in regional economies, in tandem with greater devolution and empowerment to local institutions and communities.

This context provided the focus for policymakers and researchers at the inaugural Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network (Y-PERN) Conference, on 19-20 January, in Leeds. As a novel network approach to academic policy engagement, Y-PERN will connect policymakers with the region’s academic expertise to help inform and shape policy and investment decisions around jobs, skills, infrastructure, climate and environment, and innovation. The Conference illustrated how world-leading research in Yorkshire’s universities is being applied directly to identify the measures needed to help tackle the cost of living crisis faced by increasing numbers of people, communities and businesses in the region.

The Y-PERN Conference also outlined the practical steps to de-carbonise the Yorkshire and Humber economy, and how the region can move quickly and equitably to net-zero, as part of a just transition. This is crucial given that the net zero economy is stronger – and significantly more productive – in Scotland, the Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humber, compared to London and the South East. The Y-PERN event also heard how, in York and North Yorkshire, BioYorkshire is using world class science and innovation to deliver the profitable bio-based production of chemicals, materials, and fuels, helping to support net-zero food production, farming and wider land use practices.

All these challenges and opportunities demand forensic examination, interpretation and stakeholder and community involvement to find solutions, attract investment and implement successful interventions that make a real difference. Here, Yorkshire’s universities, with Y-PERN as a key mechanism, and acting in partnership with other sectors, are able to offer both grounded realism and genuine optimism about the state and trajectory of the economy in Yorkshire now and into the future.

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