The impact of COVID -19 across the world has been unprecedented in terms of its legacy. Lives, places and communities have been changed in a way that seems totally unthinkable even a few short months ago.
In Lancashire our COVID-19 story has been a sadly familiar one with the virus impacting on every aspect of county life from our people to our economy. Whilst we know the effect on our people will take years to truly heal, the current and more immediate priority for all the public sector bodies in Lancashire right now is that of our economy and what can be done to prevent lasting irreversible harm.
The modern Lancashire economy has evolved extensively from its heavy industrial past. Gone are the days when the county depended almost exclusively on coal mining, manufacturing, heavy engineering and seaside tourism.
The Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review identified the four prime capabilities for the North as advanced manufacturing, energy, health innovation and digital. Lancashire has significant strengths in every one of these sectors in addition to which we are also performing strongly in a diverse range of other areas such as food and drink, the hospitality sector, education and, increasingly, in logistics.
The accumulation of all this has grown our economy to be the second largest in the Northern Powerhouse. Yet despite the variety and breadth of our offer, the impact of COVID-19 has still been severe and in some sectors, critical.
Just a momentary inspection of the key metrics we have been using to measure the economic impact of COVID-19 on the county make for a depressing and sober read. Traditional retailing levels are down 75%, public transport usage is down 56%, people attending their workplace is down 45% with the unsurprising outcome of these flatlining metrics being a drop in the overall economic output for Lancashire of anywhere between 20% to 25%. For some of our key industries such as manufacturing, tourism, retail and hospitality, the fall has been much sharper.
So, faced with such an economic reality and without the single representative body such as a combined authority to frame any conversation with government, the obvious and most immediate question is how do we bring together the different institutions in a two-tier area such as Lancashire to get behind a shared narrative aimed at moving our economy back in the right direction?
The start of this recovery process, we felt, lay with the coming together of the key anchor public sector institutions to produce a decisive, honest and evidence-based document which would be shared with government and represent the start of a conversation around the support we need to re-ignite our economy and growth.
We wanted this conversation to build on our existing strengths, but also acknowledge that elements of our economy are in decline and likely to fail.
Supported by a panel of industry and sector experts chaired by the current chair of the Manchester Science Partnership, Rowena Burns, and including such notable contributors as Sir Howard Bernstein, throughout late May and early June we worked with Deloitte in preparing an evidence-based economic recovery plan with the immediate aim of influencing the July emergency budget and a longer-term ambition of influencing future spending rounds.
The plan has been developed by a range of partners including Lancashire CC, Blackpool Council, Blackburn with Darwen Council, district councils and the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership.
Aware that many areas would also be lobbying Government, we wanted to stand out by being both powerful in our offer, yet simple in our message. So we structured our ask around four areas:
1–Open for business – with a focus on town centres and tourism destinations. This proposition included a series of pilot programmes designed to support business reopening in a way that manages visitor demand, ensures safe access and promotes sustainable travel.
2–Made in Lancashire – a programme of measures designed to support local production and local purchasing.
3–Strategic infrastructure and development. Lancashire has a significant strategic infrastructure and investment plan designed to provide the conditions to deliver economic growth and prosperity in the region. The plan includes transformational medium-term projects with a value of over £10bn. These projects are aligned to Lancashire's ambitious growth potential and the plan would require investment to ensure the timely delivery of around £2bn of these capital projects
4–Sector ‘watchtower’, aimed at the creation of a sector watchtower intelligence function to support the transfer of skills from sectors that are in decline due to COVID-19 to more prosperous areas. Target sectors include health and social care, food, energy and agriculture - core strengths across the county and potential growth areas.
The emotional impact of COVID-19 will take years to address, but we must work quickly to address the economic challenges. Through the decisive action we have taken around jobs, economic activity and confidence in Lancashire, we can protect what we have whilst also laying the foundations for the next period of our transformation and growth.
Stephen Young is executive director of growth, environment, transport and community services at Lancashire CC