Future of the North: The link between health and productivity

Future of the North: The link between health and productivity

As a Northern developer we have a keen interest in how the regions are developing and what the future holds. Whether you look at Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield or Hull, it is clear that the fortune of individual places in the North is dependent on the success of all.

In the third article of this series, we take a look at how we can begin to bridge the productivity gap between North and South by improving the health of people in the Northern regions.

The issue of the North-South divide refuses to go away. In almost every sphere, comparatively low levels of investment compared to many areas of the South – London and the South East in particular – threatens to hold the Northern regions back.

This underinvestment across all fields has led to a situation where we have a serious productivity gap of £4 per person per hour between the Northern regions and the rest of England. This issue has been especially pronounced since the financial crisis of 2008; whereas the average worker was producing slightly more in 2015 than they did in 2008, workers in the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside produced 2.7% less and 5.8% less respectively.

We have previously discussed the need for a true digital economy to be built in the North alongside a localised industrial strategy, but those grand economic investments alone cannot deliver a more productive North.

One factor which is often overlooked is health, and a ground-breaking report from Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) emphasises just how much poor health impacts on productivity.

The report emphasises the detrimental effects of long-term health conditions and how spells of ill health both increase the risk of job losses and result in lower wages for those who do return to work. The NHSA argues that investing in improving the health of the North would reduce the £4 per hour productivity gap, providing an annual economic boost to the UK of approximately £13.2bn.

This is a huge amount of money and shows just how much the North is currently missing out on. To heal the North-South divide in healthcare, the report splits its conclusions into two parts: recommendations for central government and recommendations for Northern local and regional stakeholders.

Government action should be centred on improving the health of the North by increasing investment in place-based public health such as increasing green space; improving the accessibility of the job market for those with a health condition in the North; increase NHS funding for preventative and health science research; and reduce economic inequality by pursuing an inclusive, green industrial strategy.

Meanwhile, Northern stakeholders are encouraged to implement health and wellbeing boards in the emerging integrated NHS care systems to promote health management and preventative healthcare; develop health programmes and initiatives tailored for local areas alongside existing NHS care; scale up existing programmes with an emphasis on starting life well, living well and ageing well; and local businesses must offer better support and job retention options to the workforce.

If these changes are made, we can expect a major positive impact.

Reducing the number of working people with long-term health conditions by 10% would decrease economic activity in the North by 3% and increasing the NHS budget by 10% would decrease inactivity by a further 3%.

If we can decrease rates of ill health by 1.2% and decrease mortality rates by 0.7% it would reduce the economic gap between the North and the rest of England by as much as 10%. Similarly, by increasing the proportion of people in good health by 3.5%, the employment gap between the Northern Powerhouse and the rest of England would fall by 10%.

All of the aforementioned figures are far in excess of what could be achieved with similar investments in other regions. In other words, investing in the health of the Northern regions provides an outsized benefit.

As the North prepares for life in the post-Brexit world, it is vital that the government pays close attention to the issue of health in the Northern Powerhouse regions if it wants to increase the wealth of the country, the regions and the people who live there. The relationship between health and success is indisputable and improving that should be a priority.

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