Regional rebalancing: a next generation view

The levelling-up debate is as important now as ever, yet the voices of those at the heart of the issue are rarely listened to. Here, Jon Bernstein speaks to two apprentices from AtkinsRéalis to hear their views on the careers, communities and opportunities open to young people across the North

October 04, 2023
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Both 19 years of age, Charley Williams and Akram Akhmed are a year into their degree apprenticeships – Charley in architecture, Akram as a quantity surveyor. Charley, who grew up in Bradford, now lives in Selby and works in a business park on the outskirts of Leeds. Akram is Middlesbrough “born and bred” and travels 45 miles or so further north to Newcastle four days a week. Both are passionate advocates of the north. Both are grateful for the opportunity it has given them. 

The similarities their stories share only serve to emphasise how, in a number of other respects, they are the exception that proves the rule. 

Take that word opportunity. While just over half (55 per cent) of 16-21 year olds in the north agree that their local area provides the chance to gain the right skills for the future, this young cohort is less upbeat about future job prospects. Many believe that their future lies beyond the north.

The figures above come from one of two reports – commissioned by AtkinsRéalis alongside Durham University and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership – that tap into the thoughts of those in the north when considering the practicalities of levelling up. Inspired, appropriately enough, by the publication of the government’s “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” white paper in February 2022, the first report reflects the views of a hard-to-reach group of senior officials and political leaders. The second uncovers the views of a younger generation.

Opportunity knocks … quietly

Asked whether there is a pervasive view among his school friends that if you want to pursue a successful career you will eventually end up in London, Akram says: “Yes, the perception does continue to exist, there’s no doubt about it… but it doesn’t need to be this way.” 

He insists there is a difference between perception and reality, using his home town as an example. Middlesbrough has long been an industrial town – his grandfather left school for a job at British Steel. But as the jobs of the past have disappeared, Akram believes new opportunities are emerging. He cites hydrogen production, the Teesworks freeport, and the short-listing of Teeside as a potential destination for the Rolls-Royce SMR (small modular reactor) as examples. “It’s about making the younger generation aware of these opportunities so they don’t feel they need to move away.”

Charley agrees. She points to Leeds which is a financial and professional services hub as well as the home now of Channel 4 (the broadcaster officially opened its City Square headquarters in September 2021). “Brilliant industries exist in Leeds and other northern cities,” says Charley. “People are just not fully aware that the north is a brilliant place for a career.” Like, Akram many of Charley’s friends feel that their future is in the south. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of young people feel that they have to move away.”

One of the anomalies of her own degree apprenticeship is that she has to travel to a London-based university once a week for study. “There is scope for the universities of the north to provide these degrees. It hasn’t happened yet and I can’t wait for it to happen.” 

‘Housing is a big worry’

A straight line runs between future opportunities and the ability to afford somewhere to live. And while it’s clear that a move south won’t make things cheaper, affordable housing remains out of reach for many in the north, too. Both Charley and Akram still live in the family home— Renting  is not a viable option for them at present, and buying a property seems a far-off dream. 

“Clearly we need to build enough houses to make them affordable,” notes Akram. If quantity is an issue then so is quality, argues Charley. “Some of my student friends have been forced to move because of damp and other issues. There should be a push to build quality, affordable housing.” 

Asked whether she aspires to be a homeowner, Charley answers immediately: “Yes, I do”. Asked how realistic a prospect she thinks that is, she pauses for a moment before replying: “Not very. It’s a big worry that maybe I won’t be able to own my own one day like my parents do.” 

Transport: ‘brilliant and terrible’

Like housing, transport is another hotbutton issue and one that affects day-to-day life rather than speaking to future aspiration. It threw up one of the more curious results from the research. Namely that while a solid 68 per cent of 16-21 year olds broadly have a positive view of transport provision, complaints about frequency, reliability and cost are high. These findings appear, at first sight at least, contradictory. 

Charley thinks that she might have an answer. She draws on her own experience of commuting into Leeds four days a week. “In the centre of Leeds, it’s brilliant – plenty of buses, plenty of trains – but as soon as you get out of the centre, it’s terrible.” 

A recent change to the timetable has left her with two possible buses home at the end of the working day. Miss both and life gets complicated. The 60-minute journey home is doable, as long as the bus turns up. “Yesterday, one went straight past me. I’ve no idea why,” she says. “The provision is not where it could be and transport should be a big area of focus [for regional leaders].”

The positive case for transport

Akram says there are plenty of transport challenges in Middlesbrough, too. However, looking at the issue from a business and engineering perspective, he suggests that we need to tell a more positive story. There are always negative perceptions of budgets and programming during the building stage of big transport projects, but once launched “people love them”. He cites the Elizabeth Line, running through London from Reading in the west to Shenfield in the east, as an example. ”Can’t we get similar schemes in the north so we can better connect cities, towns, and rural areas?” 

He makes another point about transport and its potential for wider transformation, drawing on the example of Reading. The train connection was “initially seen simply as delivering access to London but now Reading is an investment zone in its own right.” 

Levelling up to the next level

Finally, what do Charley and Akram make of the phrase levelling up? According to the research, 68 per cent of those aged 16-21 are familiar with the term and of these, 40 per cent have clear understanding of what it means. Charley and Akram put themselves in that latter group. “For me,” says Charley, “levelling up means bringing investment, opportunities, and new projects to places that haven’t seen that kind of investment before, or haven’t seen it for a long while.” She defends the phrase and thinks it’s understood by most young people because it’s so clear. “Levelling up is about taking things to the next level to improve what’s there.”

For Akram, levelling up should be closely tied to devolution in order to give “communities a platform to thrive both socially and economically.” And what makes a thriving community? One, says Akram, that is “willing to grow, learn, and reinvest.”

Find out more about AtkinsRéalis and their work across the north of England at aktinsréalis.com