The full impact of COVID-19 is still unknown. What we do know is that the economic impact is significant and unless we take the right steps now, it has a potentially long-term consequence across the North.
In considering a response, it’s important that we don’t lose our keen sense of place, of the significance of our geographic identity. Business leaders have a role to play – we need to understand and reflect cultural and regional strengths in things we say and do. We’re right to point to the differences across our towns and cities, but we should also harness the critical mass offered by a pan-Northern solution.
The 4 R’s
There’s no reason why you can’t take the thinking we bring to bear for our corporate clients and apply it to our region. KPMG has a four-stage model – Reaction, Resilience, Recovery, New Reality - and whilst often applied through a financial lens, it has resonance when thinking about people and geography.
Once we’re past the need for financial stability, we need a sustainable and inclusive recovery which centres around the themes of jobs, skills, and infrastructure.
The Reaction phase saw central government intervention designed to minimise the number of jobs being lost, providing short term financial support to regional industry and where possible considering the acceleration of local infrastructure projects (the ‘shovel-ready’ concept coined by the Chancellor). The oft-mentioned transport infrastructure challenges across the region may yet prove to be a beneficiary of this strategy.
To build Resilience into our model we need to deliver the skills and re-training opportunities required by our growth industries. We need to embrace, nurture, and champion the innovation and entrepreneurialism we see across places like Nexus in Leeds; Baltic Creative in Liverpool, and the Business Growth Hub in Manchester. Indeed, we’re already seeing examples of businesses freeing up capital to invest in retraining and reskilling employees to fit with evolving business models – be it their own or elsewhere.
To deliver long term results, we need these themes of jobs, skills, and infrastructure to come together in providing stronger communities and a better environment for all of us – in areas where we choose to work, to play, and to live our lives. We’ll see consumer sentiment and consumption beginning to improve as jobs are created, investment decisions prove well placed, and anxiety starts to pass.
To prepare for the New Reality phase we can expect to see learned behaviours and technologies tested during the height of the crisis becoming standard practice. The value we place on ‘people’ has increased dramatically during periods of extended lockdown, and our awareness of the need for good physical and mental health is at a high and needs to be maintained into the new normal.
Whilst our city centres will likely change as new working modes emerge and remote connectivity proves sustainable, the idea that cities become less relevant needs to be balanced against the recent political agenda in support of devolved local government. The North boasts several strong, well established Combined Authorities, along with a number of fledgling agreements in place – with public funding being channelled through these bodies, the concept of city region is likely to remain key to inclusive growth.
Across the North we hear varying descriptions of ‘climate emergency’ and commitment to net zero targets. We’ve seen ESG – Environmental, Social, and Governance - rise sharply up the boardroom agenda. In determining our recovery we have a chance to improve the regions longer term environmental fortunes, accelerating a range of zero emission projects, but it’s the S of ESG that has become even more significant to business as we see societal considerations – the moral judgement around JRS, the ethical provenance of supply chains – having a huge impact on commercial success. Organisations across our region have come together to collaborate more than ever before, with examples of businesses ‘swapping’ their wares to ensure their respective workforces have access to critical products and services.
Building on our strengths
The North is a resilient patch - home to robust people, with a strong sense of identity, and capable of achieving tremendous things. We have acknowledged and world-class representation in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, financial services, and consumer markets, along with pockets of deep and exciting expertise around technology, data, life sciences, and creative media.
There’s no doubt that the way many of us work will have changed but that should do nothing to dissuade us of the huge potential on our doorstep and the opportunity we now face to make a lasting positive impression for the generations to come.