We must connect more people to our urban centres

August 17, 2015

The Government’s plans to create well-connected city regions are welcome, and should be delivered as quickly as possible.

Currently, people who live in the third of the local authorities which make up the UK’s eight city regions outside of the South East cannot reach a major employment centre (equivalent to 5,000 jobs) within a twenty minute journey by public transport.

Three quarters of these places have an unemployment rate above the national average. This reflects a pervasive truth – economic opportunity is not spread equally across Britain.

The economic chasm between the North and South is still enormous. A young person leaving school today with no qualifications is still more likely to be in work and earning more if they grew up in Reading rather than Rochdale.

There are some islands of opportunity within our regions: places like Bristol, Manchester and Leeds are now creating more and better jobs than their close neighbours.

Behind all the discussion of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, or a wider city renaissance, is a debate about living standards. If the best jobs are centralising in some cities but not others, then where you live will be a bigger determinant of the type of work you can get.

With this in mind, Policy Exchange’s latest report, On the Move, makes the case for a more mobile workforce. Britain’s cities offer enormous economic opportunities but more people need to be put within their reach.

Not every person is equally mobile. Moving across the country for work or commuting for three hours everyday into a big city are options typically only available to highly educated, professional types.

This summer will see thousands of new graduates join the gold rush to London in search of a career that matches their skills and ambitions. But compare that with someone living in the North East working in retail.

For the latter, moving cross-country is a more costly proposition, not least because of the huge differences in rental prices between the regions.

Commuting further is easier and often preferable to relocating entirely, but again this favours professionals as the financial rewards are much higher.

So what should the Government do to connect people on low incomes in deprived areas with opportunity in our cities?

The decision to devolve new funding and powers over transport to the City Regions is certainly a positive step forward. But more could be done now by policy makers to make transport cheaper and more efficient.

The car – the biggest enabler of mobility over the last century – could be made more accessible by giving tax benefits to people who offer to share their ride to work with others.

The bus can be made more efficient by diverting subsidies that would usually go to the operators into new investments in prioritised routes and smart-ticketing.

Major cities could also be given the strategic economic powers they need to expand their rail routes into their commuter hinterlands.

What about those people living in struggling former industrial cities or coastal towns cut off from job opportunities? Workers in places like Burnley, Hartlepool and Hastings cannot reach any major employment sites within even a 40 minute journey by public transport.

Here, connecting people to opportunity means addressing the root causes of low mobility. It means giving the best teachers – the foundation of a good education and therefore higher mobility – an attractive benefits package to incentivise them to work in their schools.

It also means personalising welfare so long-term claimants have the resources they need to make improvements in their skills set.

It is easy to generalise about all these places. Many people do not want to move away from the area they grew up, or else have to commute for forty minutes extra everyday. This is perfectly understandable.

However, the Government should give people who want to access the better opportunities on offer in our cities the ability to reach them.

This blog originally appeared on ConservativeHome.

Join our mailing list