Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has called for a nationwide ‘Build Back Better’ campaign to help set the course for the Great Recovery. Alongside Leeds City Council Leader Judith Blake, speaking at DevoConnect’s webinar last week, he also made clear that the case for ‘levelling up’ would need to be made again in the wake of the coronavirus emergency.
It is clear three core pillars should underpin the Build Back Better campaign. First, the Government must bring local leaders inside the tent for post-COVID economic planning as this will be critical to achieving a Great Recovery.
In our webinar which shared insights on co-ordinating city-region responses to COVID-19, Mayor Burnham and Cllr Blake provided sombre reports on how the Government favoured a top-down approach over partnership. This accentuated failures in key areas such as PPE procurement and the siting of test centres. The pair underlined the importance of learning lessons from this experience as we look towards drawing up a road map for recovery. There is clearly a case for including in the TUC’s proposed National Council for Reconstruction & Recovery - already bringing together business and union leaders with Government, which happened last week - representation for Metro Mayors and local government.
Second, our social and economic model cannot afford to regress to business as usual. As Andy Burnham outlined, a number of benefits from the lockdown period have emerged that must be safeguarded and provide the bedrock for uniting the country and building back better. Steps forward have been made in cleaner air across British cities, an improved work-life balance for many that remain employed in a working from home setting, as well as a rising trend of people reporting that they have embedded more regular exercise into their new routines. Those in the vanguard of city-region leadership believe that local government, especially through combined authorities, have a leading role in the successful delivery of a net zero future, transformed cycling and walking infrastructure, and improved broadband connectivity. This consensus must be matched by Westminster’s commitment and funding.
Third, Government decision making cannot move back to a position where austerity dominates. Cllr Blake – who also chairs Core Cities UK – made a compelling case on how the preceding decade of spending cuts had delivered a hammer blow to much of the public sector and any return to this programme put the future resilience of frontline services at high risk. Both leaders were also clear that game-changing infrastructure pledges – old and new – must be kept and made to help drive the economic recovery. HS2, for example, should press forward as we come out of lockdown, Net Zero initiatives accelerated and digital connectivity programmes supercharged. A realignment towards recognising the value – not just the price – of investment should characterise the economic recovery, which marries well with the timely rise in advocates of shifting towards a stakeholder capitalism model.
It is premature to make definitive conclusions on whether the Government is tuning-in to the Build Back Better message – they certainly have liked three-word slogans in the past! - but the early signs are promising. Last week, DfT Minister, Andrew Stephenson, made clear in his Transport Committee appearance that the Government is not wavering in its commitment to deliver HS2. In addition, Housing, Communities and Local Government secretary of state, Robert Jenrick MP, wrote to local government leaders promising to ‘champion your cause and fight your corner’.
Whilst not at the heart of government, key conservative influencers in the devolution world have also been striking a tone similar to the Build Back Better campaign. Devolution doyen, Lord Heseltine called on the Government to ‘harness community spirit’ by inviting Mayors to draw up economic recovery plans, and West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street echoed the sentiment of northern Labour leaders that the case for HS2 has not been undermined and delivering inclusive growth is a more crucial agenda than before the COVID-19 outbreak.
As the Government starts to make public its plans for exiting lockdown later this week, we shall see the extent to which it supports these three pillars critical for the great recovery: engagement with Mayors and local government as genuine partners; a commitment not to return to business as usual; and an early decision to dismiss any return to austerity.
Steve Barwick is director of DevoConnect
Click here to watch the COVID-19 webinar on our DevoConnect YouTube channel.