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A Magazine for Sheffield

Rebuilding Sheffield's economy from coronavirus a "herculean task"

Mayor warns against a "a slow and steady return to a broken status quo," as thousands of children are set to go off school without access to laptops.

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Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

In a new year message released before the announcement of a third national lockdown, Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis has warned that rebuilding the region's economy will be a "herculean task."

"This must not be a slow and steady return to a broken status quo," he wrote. "2021 must be the year we fix the foundations and start the job of building back better."

According to research published in July, the city already suffered from low paid and precarious work "forged by deindustrialisation and austerity" before the start of the pandemic.

The report, which was commissioned by Sheffield TUC and written by researchers at three universities, found that "in certain respects, nowhere will be more greatly impacted [by coronavirus] than Sheffield and its City Region."

"The sectoral composition of Sheffield leaves it highly exposed to the impact of the pandemic, meaning the city’s low paid and precariously employed workforce has more to fear from the crisis than those in many other locations," said researchers.

Today's sudden closure of schools has created a new crisis in a city where over 5,000 children don't have access to a laptop at home and where many households can't afford to get online.

“It is desperately disappointing and represents a total failure on behalf of this government that at least 5,000 children in Sheffield are still without laptops," said Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh.

“It is essential that pupils do not fall further behind and a clear plan is in place, not just to reopen schools safely, but to ensure children’s education is protected and working parents are supported."

After years of government inaction, a campaign has been launched by local businesses leaders to encourage Sheffield residents to donate their spare laptops to local schoolchildren.

This "digital poverty" is the result of decades of inequality and underinvestment which has seen northern towns and cities lag far behind London and the south east.

For years Sheffield's economy, long centred around manufacturing, has been at a disadvantage as government policy has increasingly focused on financial services and property.

This has disproportionally benefited London's elite, where a hugely-inflated property market is used by criminal gangs and corrupt governments overseas to launder stolen money.

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The Office for National Statistics has called Sheffield the "low pay capital of the UK."

Photo by Harrison Qi on Unsplash.

The government has shown no indication of a change of focus, recently announcing that ten government-sponsored tax avoidance zones, known as 'freeports', will be created around the UK. Tax experts say there is "no real evidence" that these tax avoidance zones incentivise new business activity.

In Sheffield, where property and financial services make up only a small part of the economy, wages have plummeted in recent years, leading the ONS to label the city "the low pay capital of the UK."

"As the so called “low pay capital of the UK”, the people of Sheffield are in desperate need of a pay rise, and it is clear employers aren’t lining up to provide one," said Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake in July.

In 2017 it was revealed that South Yorkshire had become one of the poorest regions in the European Union.

Figures showed that the region, which includes Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham, was poorer than anywhere in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden or Finland.

This decline is not inevitable. Other European countries have successfully revived their post-industrial regions, like Germany's Rhine-Ruhr, through investment in infrastructure and high-quality manufacturing.

Before the pandemic Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service and former Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, compared regional inequality in the UK to the gap between West Germany and East Germany in the 1990s.

According to the OECD, the UK's economy is now likely to suffer the worst damage of any country in the developed world from the pandemic, as consumer spending plummets during lockdown.

Sheffield is one of the cities in the UK most affected by the fall in spending, which is down by over 50%, partly because of its reliance on spending by university students.

The TUC report concludes that the pandemic has "shone a light" on injustices such as the lack of bargaining power among low-paid and precarious workers, but that it did not create them.

"In the UK and Sheffield specifically, the evidence is accumulating that exposure to harms – either directly or indirectly – is powerfully determined by existing social inequalities and the political choices of the present and recent past."

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