There is no doubt that the negative effects of covid have been felt in the most deprived areas of our country, in education, in work and in health outcomes. That has made the task of creating a society where a person’s life chances do not depend on where they were born more challenging, and all the more urgent. There are opportunities to be grasped, but only if the Government has the wit to recognise them, the will to act on them and the courage to provide investment.
Lockdowns have brought changes to the way many of us work and some will be permanent. Businesses have had to take the plunge into homeworking and found productivity held up or even improved. They have found themselves looking at the cost of large, permanent office space as an unnecessary burden. Employees found themselves relieved from long and expensive commutes and, for those who can move, an exodus is under way from the big cities.
That movement has seen rents in city centres such as London, Manchester and Leeds fall, while they are on the rise in areas such as Wigan, Keighley and Durham. It is bringing more disposable income to parts of the country that have been largely neglected for more than a decade and has obvious benefits for local economies, but there is a greater prize to be had.
Residents of those areas need to see more than a rise in rents and a few more jobs in upmarket shops and restaurants. They now have the opportunity to do the same well-paid jobs—jobs that were previously unavailable in that area. There are reasons beyond the financial for people wishing to remain local, such as family ties, caring responsibilities, a sense of community and belonging to a place. That is certainly the case in Hull, where there is a strong local identity. The desire to remain in their community means many instinctively look at what is available and adjust their aspirations to fit. The new possibilities contained in remote working are a way of broadening horizons and opportunity, while maintaining social cohesion and community, but that can only happen with action.
Fast, reliable broadband needs to be universally available. Schools and colleges need to be properly funded and pupils need to be made aware of new career opportunities. Not everyone has the space at home to work comfortably and successfully, so digital hubs and hybrid workspaces will be necessary to support this new way of working.
I am proud to say that Hull is well placed for all these changes. It is blessed with the best fibre-optic coverage and upload speeds in the country, provided by KCOM. As a result, we have also seen the opening of the kind of digital hub I have described in the Midland Bank in Whitefriargate. What is available in Hull should be available to all other areas that have been on the wrong end of de-industrialisation and ruinous Conservative austerity.
The Irish Government have already set about redistributing jobs and opportunity and are aiming for 20% of Ireland’s 300,000 civil servants to have moved to remote working by the end of the year. To ensure jobs are distributed across the country, they are creating a network of more than 400 remote working hubs and introducing tax breaks for individuals and companies that support homeworking. This Government could and should embark on the same path. Will they? It will require foresight, intelligent planning and a determination to invest in the future of all of this country’s people—qualities that have been in short supply so far.