Regional rebalancing: for the north, by the north

What really matters to those at the centre of levelling up? Atkins, the world-leading design, engineering and project-management consultancy, commissioned two research reports to better understand the issues affecting those across the north

September 07, 2023
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“I can either arrive at work an hour early or 10 minutes late.” 

Thirteen words from one teenager in West Yorkshire. Thirteen words that capture the essence of the challenge facing policymakers across the north of England, who are addressing regional inequities. 

Another, slightly older, resident of West Yorkshire makes a similar point. “I got a place at a college with a really good pass rate, 98 per cent grade B or above at A-level... but I had to get up at 5am every morning to get the bus to be there for 9am. Otherwise I would be late. There were no other colleges or sixth forms nearby that were any good.”

Spend enough time listening to the views of the north by those in the north and it soon becomes clear that the multiple challenges facing the region are inextricably interlinked. From skills and training to transport, from housing to health and well-being, addressing one issue is likely to necessitate addressing them all. Equally, neglecting one probably means neglecting them all. 

The quotes from the young people above come from one of two reports commissioned by Atkins alongside Durham University and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, inspired by the publication of the government’s “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” white paper in February 2022. The aim of the first report was to talk to a hard-to-reach group of senior officials and political leaders. The second, an opportunity to monitor the views of a cross-section of 16- to 21-year-olds entering—or about to enter—a world of work and adult concerns. 

Right idea, wrong name

When the research was first undertaken in the summer of 2022, a combination of domestic political uncertainty, a growing cost-of-living crisis, a steadily darkening economic prognosis and an ongoing war on the European continent suggested that the cause of levelling up was likely to drop down the political agenda. What both reports indicate, however, is that although the term might have lost its lustre, the underlying principle of regional rebalancing—a preferable form of words in our view—has not. 

Intriguingly, around two-thirds of the young people surveyed (68 per cent) are familiar with the phrase “levelling up”. Of those, 60 per cent say they have a clear understanding of what it means. By contrast, only 47 per cent of the same group have heard the term “net zero”, despite a vast majority (83 per cent) identifying climate change as one of the most important issues of our times.

Among regional decision-makers there is broad agreement that levelling up might no longer be a helpful term, but that a levelling up agenda is essential to achieve their future vision for the region. Some younger critics dismiss the phrase as “a political slogan”—others as “just another means to gentrification”—but most believe in the fundamental purpose. If words matter, regional rebalancing might work better as a catch-all.

Place, prospects, and perception

No single issue dominates the rebalancing agenda, which underscores the interdependencies and a need for a holistic approach. When asked to identify the top challenges in their region, seven separate issues were selected by at least a quarter of decision-makers. In order of most cited, these were: skills and the future of the workforce; inequalities; health and well-being; and transport. Housing is high on the list, too.

For the younger generation all these issues matter, with many occupied by thoughts of place (the infrastructure and amenities around them), prospects (skills, employment and somewhere to live) and perceptions (of where they live). Unbidden, several referenced the impact of social issues such as crime, drugs and homelessness. 

While over half (55 per cent) of this young group agree that their local area provided opportunities to gain the right skills for the future, they are less upbeat about future job opportunities or the affordability of housing. To quote one young person from Teesside: “The jobs I want to do don’t exist around here.” Another from the same region is more optimistic: “There’s a lot of job opportunities, even in this small town, including companies that do medical instruments as well as cameras. There’s lots of opportunities for scientists and pharmacists.”

Transport remains pivotal. For young people it is fundamental to their prospects and quality of life, affecting other choices such as where they can go to school or college, which job opportunities are available and which leisure options they can enjoy. Transport connects, both literally and figuratively.

Town and country

To categorise the needs of the north of England as homogeneous would, of course, be a mistake. The report shows a clear disparity of experience between those in cities, towns and villages. Some of the differences are familiar. Young people in towns and rural areas complain of a lack of indoor sports facilities, nightclubs, cinemas and restaurants. Transport provides another contrast—while two-thirds (65 per cent) of those in cities describe public transport provision as good, a similar number (62 per cent) in towns and rural areas think public transport in their area is unreliable. 

Other differences are less familiar. For example, city dwellers are more optimistic about gaining the right skills compared to those living in towns or rural areas—71 per cent against just 45 per cent. All groups agree that housing is expensive. “I would definitely have to move away [to live independently],” said one young person from Liverpool. “I could never afford to live around here.”

Finally, and perhaps the most surprising finding across the two reports: the degree of intergenerational solidarity expressed by the younger generation. While much is made of a rift between the ages—pitting, for example, baby boomers gifted free further education, jobs for life and valuable properties against millennials granted none of these advantages—this 16- to 21-year-old cohort generally expresses empathy across the divide. 

To quote one young respondent: “It is not their fault, but there used to be more jobs, used to be a community centre, a school that isn’t there anymore, a high street with shops and more going on in general. I wouldn’t blame one group, but it is not as good as it used to be.

“Regional Rebalancing: Primary Research into the Challenges Facing Local Decision-makers Across the North of England” can be read here

“Talking ‘bout my Generation: A View from the Next Generation” can be read here

Both reports were commissioned by Atkins, Durham University and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. Both focused on four regions in the north of England: Teesside, West Yorkshire, Liverpool City Region and an area characterised as “the M6 corridor” running from Crewe to Carlisle

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