Work isn’t paying – but the North can act now to fix that

We struggled to come up with a good picture for this one, not gonna lie. Image: Getty.

Yesterday, the National Living Wage rose to £8.21 an hour, benefitting 2.4 million workers. But those workers are still paid less than they need to live –79p an hour less than the Real Living Wage of £9 an hour outside London.

Conventional wisdom suggests that work is a route out of poverty, and we live during a time where “record highs for UK jobs” are celebrated. But this is clearly not the full picture.

In the North of England, five years of talk about the Northern Powerhouse have yet to feed through to the wages northern people take home from work. The North’s employment rate is high, at 74 per cent. But weekly pay has fallen £21 since 2008 in the North and 1 in 5 jobs in the region pay less than the Real Living Wage, leaving 2 million working age Northerners living in poverty.

But in these challenging circumstances, the North is fighting back. With another metro mayor soon to join the North’s four existing elected mayors, there is another opportunity to demonstrate local leadership.

In the North, many public bodies are fighting back against low pay. Preston isn’t the only council with strong policies in this area, but it is rightly lauded for the Preston Model, using the Real Living Wage as one tool in its community wealth-building arsenal.

Other places are also fighting low pay. Sheffield City Council, Greater Manchester Police, and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust are some of 64 Living Wage Foundation accredited Northern public sector organisations.

When it comes to procurement, these organisations are working around and overcoming the legal and financial challenges often raised.

But of course, there is more to work than decent pay: job security, autonomy, and training all matter to workers. These are things councils and public bodies can require of contractors now.

Mayors like Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham are drawing up employment charters to promote their visions of decent work which feature secure, well-paid, and fulfilling jobs with training and progression. We need to see more of this work across the North.

The wider impact of decent work

Next month, the North of Tyne region elects its first Metro Mayor, who must look to prioritise decent work in this area too. As IPPR North has previously recommended, the successful candidate should implement a Real Living Wage policy, starting with those directly paid or contracted by the Combined Authority and then influencing other public bodies.

The mayor should develop an employment charter too, consulting with employers, workers and trade unions to encourage decent work principles in the wider economy.

The positive impact of these policies extends further than the workers who are directly affected. The IPPR Commission on Economic Justice found low wages are as much a cause of national low productivity as a by-product of it: this means more people being paid the Real Living Wage could actually help raise productivity. It could also help boost struggling local economies, as workers buy the goods and services they need locally. Furthermore, the Treasury stands to gain from increased tax revenues.

Clearly central government must take action on low pay for the full effect to be felt by all. But low-paid workers cannot afford to wait.

Local leaders can start making a difference to their communities now. They should take the opportunity to do so.

Marcus Johns is a Researcher at IPPR North. He tweets @CllrMarcus.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.