At PwC, we analyse market trends to gain insight into topics that matter to our clients and the communities we work in. So, in my role as Chair of the North, I take a special interest in the data we have on economic and social issues affecting the people who live in the north of England, and how the region is performing against other areas of the UK.
There are positive shoots. This year, our Good Growth for Cities Index, which ultimately measures the ‘liveability’ of 50 UK cities and the London boroughs as a whole, showed that the gap between the highest and lowest ranked UK cities in the index is narrowing. Progress remains slow and the gap is still large, but cities in the bottom 10, such as Bradford, Middlesbrough, Stockton and Manchester have shown a larger average rate of improvement when compared with those in the top 10 like Oxford, Swindon and Exeter.
Recently, we released more regional analysis in our Industrial Manufacturing and Services (IM&S) Productivity Tracker. The tracker tells us that the North is far behind London, with the capital ahead by £20 an hour in terms of output. Yorkshire and the North East also had some of the lowest productivity levels in the UK in 2021.
However, some of the least productive regions in previous years, such as Wales, have also recorded the highest levels of growth output per hour over the past decade. How did they achieve this growth? Through investment into housing, infrastructure and skills, alongside effective incentives for close collaboration between businesses and public sector organisations.
The common theme across these reports is growth. Each separate analysis recognises the importance of locally-led, targeted interventions that are specific to both the challenges and the opportunities of a particular region. There are three key areas:
Locally developed strategies
Greater Manchester is cited in our Productivity Tracker as the most established model of fiscal devolution and, as a result, has put strategies in place that support collaboration between regional public and private institutions. In the North, we know from experience that local leaders are best placed to develop plans that take into account place-specific barriers to growth.
Efforts to improve the socio-economic outlook for regions, and for individual cities, can’t be ‘one size fits all’. As the All-Party Parliamentary Group for left behind neighbourhoods said recently; “for levelling up to be successful, it must be led by local people and reflect local needs - not follow a national template.” In the North, the issues facing communities differ from town to town, so it’s crucial that every layer - from local council leaders to devolved mayors - has input into regional strategies.
I’ve spoken before about collaborative approaches to improving our cities and regions, but none of these collaborations are more important than the one between public services and communities. Our Good Growth for Cities report states that inclusive growth is about more than just economic success and increased productivity, it’s about how supported local people are, and the opportunities they can access. Public services that understand and meet the needs of local people are crucial to creating happy, healthy communities in which people can work, live and grow.
Our Productivity Tracker underlines the close relationship between high productivity, available talent and a high level of skills, but it also shows how important the '30 mile commute’ is - and that infrastructure and housing have a crucial part to play.
So, the North doesn’t just need investment into skills - something that we’re already working hard on across the region with the Leeds Future Talent plan and the Greater Manchester Work and Skills Strategy - it also needs high quality local housing and infrastructure to attract and retain key talent.
Leveraging future trends
The world is moving at such a rapid pace that the success of an economy can depend on how forward thinking it is. Developing regional clusters, or core city hubs, that align to important issues for the country as a whole can help not only improve productivity and economic outputs but also key issues like skills and employment.
According to CBRE, Manchester is the leading tech city outside of London. Greater Manchester has developed the Digital Blueprint, committing to being a digital city region with targets such as increasing digital sector roles in Greater Manchester to 95,000 by 2026 and growing the region’s technology and data sector to £5.5bn in 2025 and £7bn by 2029.
Newcastle is focusing a big part of its green growth around transport. Combatting the rising levels of car use and ownership in the region, the North East is working to improve the existing transport network and build upon this to work towards carbon neutrality. The plan is for the whole of the North East and recognises the different needs of communities and helps them all to become healthier and more sustainable.
Yorkshire and the Humber is also focused on a greener future, and its 2030 vision seeks to build on the region’s Net Zero drive through £15 billion of investment in innovative areas such as green hydrogen production. This vision would see 80% of Humber C02 emissions eliminated, thousands of new jobs created, and one in ten jobs safeguarded.
All of the data and insight on where regional disparities lie and how we can close the gap across the UK shows that collaboration and innovation, as well as understanding, is the key to socio-economic success. Understanding our places at a granular level, appreciating what barriers exist, but also what leverage each town has, and levelling up those towns in a collaborative way will ensure equal opportunities and sustainable growth for our regions.