Sheffield is packed with people with PhDs. The Tees Valley is home to a skilled workforce of which Britain can be proud. The City can do more to invest in talent and support entrepreneurialism in these regions.
Those were some key takeaways from a Labour in the City panel discussion focusing on how the financial services industry can contribute towards a “levelling up” of Britain’s dangerously geographically lop-sided economy.
Jessie Joe Jacobs, Labour candidate for the Tees Valley mayoralty, delivered some home truths when asked about the image and reputation of the Square Mile in her region.
“The City is so irrelevant to the people around me – the disconnect is so wide – that it’s hard to answer that,” she said. “People just see decisions made by people made in London.”
Her advice to banks and financiers was: “Instead of thinking about the bottom line of an Excel spreadsheet, think of investments in terms of investments in people, places and the planet.”
Jacobs, a social entrepreneur, founded A Way Out, a charity in her home town of Stockton which aims to empower women, families and young people in the region. She is seeking to topple Ben Houchen, who squeaked home as Tees Valley mayor for the Tories by just 500 votes in 2017.
Investment in infrastructure and transport links, she said, should be prioritised to allow Tees Valley to become a more attractive place for people to live, work and play. And as an example of a City financier who has brought tangible benefits to the region, she pointed to Jonathan Ruffer, a former broker and corporate financier who has pumped millions into arts, history and culture in Bishop Auckland.
Olivia Blake, the newly elected Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, highlighted the skills and people potential in her part of the country – her constituency has the highest proportion of PhDs per head outside London. But, at the same time, unemployment has doubled from 3.1% to more than 6% due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in spite of Sheffield’s lower than average proportion of workers using the furlough scheme.
She emphasised the need to come up with bespoke solutions rather than slipping into the Westminster habit of treating “the north” as homogeneous: “You can’t treat Sheffield in the same way as you do the Tees Valley, say, or Liverpool.”
Emma Reynolds, Managing Director for Public Affairs, Policy and Research at TheCityUK, pointed out that two out of three jobs in the financial services sector are outside London. The industry is the UK’s biggest taxpayer, its largest exporter and it has supported businesses during the pandemic by issuing more than 1.4 million loans, to a value of more than £60 billion, under the Government’s various COVID-19 business support schemes.
“One of our member firms told us they’d done three years’ worth of lending in 12 weeks,” said Reynolds.
All of the panellists saw Labour’s focus on a Green New Deal as a big positive – encompassing everything from environmentally responsible steel-making to retrofitting homes with energy efficiency.
Remote working, and a lesser reliance on offices in the City and Canary Wharf, is another potential positive for regional investment. And the growing influence of devolved mayors – most notably Labour’s Andy Burnham – was also cited as a reason to be optimistic about a more equal flow of investment across the UK.
On behalf of Labour in the City, a big thank you to all those who took part in a lively and thoughtful discussion.
By Andrew Clark, COO, Labour in the City