Understandably, the bulk of attention has been on the medical impact of this coronavirus crisis. But in fighting this disease, we have had to take unprecedented steps in controlling movements which has meant freezing our economy.
As we begin to think about returning to some normality, attention must turn to the economic consequences and how we in Cumbria are going to recover.
The Government has committed huge resources to support business affected – but there will still be many firms in distress and the economy itself will almost certainly be in recession. The challenge is for us as a county and a country to recover quickly.
Different parts of our local economy will have fared differently. Some may have done reasonably well, being able to continue to trade – food manufacturers for example. Others will be in a position to recover quickly and start up more or less where they left off.
But many others will be in great difficulty. Furthermore, there will be parts of our region that have survived better than others. What is clear, is that for the foreseeable future we will be poorer and there will be higher unemployment.
This will take a social and economic toll. It is therefore extremely important that the county does not look inwards but instead has a positive proactive and outward looking attitude. The confidence to see ourselves through this must come from Cumbria as much as anywhere else.
Investment, both private and public, is key to this confidence. We are fortunate in Carlisle as there are quite a number of public sector investments in the pipeline; the railway station development, the Citadel, the ring road, the Sands Centre, and the Garden Village. But the stark truth is that these projects are now more vital than they have ever been – and we as a city can’t squander the opportunities presented to us.
Our councils will also have a responsibility – and an opportunity – to be driving forces for growth in our region. They will need to take a proactive response by using their purchasing power, supporting businesses, and utilising their own property ownership to generate economic activity. They can also support the overriding narrative that businesses are recovering and that we are excellent region to invest in. Our councils can also embrace the opportunities that the Government is offering them through reforms – becoming more joined up, having more accountability, and providing clear leadership and purpose. I do think we have the ability to achieve this in Cumbria.
The private sector – battered as it is – will also has its own role to play, and large companies are well placed to help. Companies such as BAE or Sellafield are substantial employers with serious economic clout. They have the ability to support the region’s supply chain and, again, if they were to take a proactive role in doing so, they would help to support local businesses and employment. Ultimately the way to recover and ensure that there are plenty of job opportunities is for the small and medium size businesses to expand and grow. Many such businesses will have had the hardest time.
The consequences of this crisis aren’t going to just be felt over the next few months, they will be felt over the next couple of years. Things are going to be extremely challenging which means it is vital that we come together and get behind our communities and local businesses, articulate a coherent narrative and tell the rest of the country and world that we are open for business – that in Cumbria we have a great place to live and work in.
To achieve all this, I believe we will need to create a specific Cumbria Recovery Task Force bringing together local authorities and businesses – but with clear private sector leadership. As for the narrative – quite simply it has to be growth. Through growth, our social future and our economy can recover more quickly. The initiative for Cumbria has to be taken in Cumbria.
This crisis has given us much to be pessimistic about, and there are tragedies that can never be recovered from. But we in Cumbria owe it to ourselves, and to future generations of Cumbrians, to believe in our county, to be positive, and to say we aren’t just going to get through this, we are a region on our way up.