How Prepared for Brexit is Leeds during the Pandemic?

Since June 2016, the UK public has been anxiously waiting for the day when Brexit will finally mean Brexit.

Businesses, local councils and individuals have been preparing themselves for various outcome scenarios, yet none could have ever anticipated that Brexit would coincide with a pandemic.

Between the 18th and 24th October, Leeds recorded 3251 new cases of coronavirus, up by 209 cases from the week before. The final week of October was particularly turbulent for the city. According to the Leeds Live bulletin, there are now more hospital admissions in the city than
there were in April, signalling the need for urgent response.

The national lockdown comes into action less than 60 days before the UK will officially leave the European Union.

What impact has Covid-19 had on Leeds?
Since March 2020 when the first lockdown measures were introduced, 115,000 people have been furloughed, according to the Leeds Economic Recovery Framework. The report that was released at the end of October also states that unemployment in the city has risen 80% between March and August.

Income inequality, a target for improvement, has been growing since Leeds’ recovery from the 2008 recession, and the pandemic has already exacerbated the division particularly in ethnic minority communities.

From a positive perspective, Leeds has been able to advance on infrastructural projects, particularly in the city centre as a result of reduced footfall in the area. This puts the city in a good position as restrictions are eased since the people of Leeds will resume activity in greener, environmentally friendly communities.

How has Leeds been preparing its economy for Brexit?
In the past few years, Leeds City Council has published several reports investigating the Brexit Impact, (2018), naming the manufacturing sector, financial services and the retail economy as areas of greatest concern.
Whilst no single sector dominates Leeds’ economy, each is dependent on EU investment or labour which is a cause for apprehension as a deal is still yet to be agreed on.

Not only has Leeds been bracing itself for the exit from the EU single market, it has also been preparing for the West Yorkshire Devolution Deal which has the potential to complement its Growth Strategy plans. This will grant the region the status of a Combined Authority, allowing local governments greater control over policy decisions and allowing them to retain a larger proportion of their business rates which can be invested in areas such as adult education, small businesses and transport to name a few.

Should the mayoral elections go ahead in 2021, West Yorkshire and Leeds will be in a positive position to manage the response to Brexit and the virus, benefitting from local and specific knowledge of different sectors. This devolution of powers will also ensure more effective, long-term planning for the city’s economy.

How has Leeds responded to Covid-19?
The city has already announced its plan to collaborate with initiatives that will help those that recently lost their jobs during the pandemic, either to reskill or become a better match for the positions created in expanding sectors such as the digital one.

The labour market has already been a source of attention as the city intends to tackle the prevalence of low-paid and part time jobs.

The Employment and Skills Leeds website has been set up as a starting point for those searching for jobs whilst the initiative Digital Access West Yorkshire has been set up to prevent education gaps by refurbishing second-hand technology to donate to those who are unable to stay connected during the pandemic.

100% Digital Leeds is also committed to providing digital access to Leeds residents to not only address working-from-home issues, but to keep communities connected, maintaining welfare.

What does the future look like for Leeds?
It’s safe to say that Leeds has been preparing for significant economic changes for some time now.

The Leeds City Council has factored in different recovery paths that the city could take and has a contingency plan in place. Even before the pandemic hit, Leeds has been preparing for potential problems. As part of the Inclusive Growth plan, an objective is to make the economy flexible and
resilient to possible shocks.

What would be interesting to follow is how Leeds will address employment, with the city currently welcoming a significant proportion of its student population into the workforce. 11% of the University of Leeds workforce are EU nationals, meaning its research and knowledge sector could face problems in the coming months.

Like the rest of the UK, there still is not enough information to go on to predict the response to Brexit and a second lockdown. Nonetheless, the economy has been accustomed to long periods of uncertainty since the
referendum. With an outline of future strategies written up, as well as the Devolution Deal pending, Leeds appears to be ready to confront the future.

Photo: Public Sector Executive