Preparing for a just transition in Yorkshire and the Humber

Workers and communities must be involved to ensure a fair approach to industrial change

Climate action and levelling up’ don’t have to be incompatible, but workers and communities must be involved to ensure a fair approach to industrial change: protecting jobs in crucial industries while creating thousands of good, green jobs where they are most needed.

Yorkshire and the Humber has long been one of our most important industrial powerhouses. Even since the decline of UK manufacturing, the region has continued to produce materials crucial to our economy: steel, cement, chemicals, glass and more. This is evident in its carbon footprint: the region is responsible for about 10% of the UK’s Greenhouse Gas emissions, with almost half of that coming from just 25 industrial sites. Our new research shows that 360,000 people in the region — 15% of all jobs - work in industries with high carbon emissions. That doesn’t mean all those jobs are at risk, but those industries will urgently need to change in ways that are likely to affect workers.

Some industries will need support to decarbonise while protecting jobs and providing materials needed for the transition to a low-carbon economy, while others will likely need to be phased out. This must be done in a way that is fair to workers: engaging and supporting them either to adapt in their existing industry or to retrain into new good, green jobs; or compensating them if they are close to retirement. In all cases, workers and communities must not be left worse off.

Involving workers and communities in plans is central to the just transition’, a term which many have either never heard of or distrust, fearing it amounts to little more than job losses. Given the experience of past transitions, which saw the closure of mines, factories and metalworks across the country, workers and unions are understandably sceptical that this time will be different. There is no good example of a just transition in recent UK history. Now the concept has been taken on by the environmental movement, businesses and governments, but it will remain meaningless if unaccompanied by a concrete plan.

We looked at three case studies with different just transition challenges. The first is the Scunthorpe site of British Steel which releases over 4.5m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year: the UK steel industry needs urgent support to decarbonise and retain jobs, for example by bringing forward the Green Steel Fund. The aviation sector employs 5,100 people directly and 4,100 indirectly in the region but faces the triple threat of climate change, automation, and Covid-19. Finally, public transport, which already provides green jobs but with the average Yorkshire bus driver earning £10-£11 per hour, the sector needs significant investment in increasing staff and services, improving pay and conditions and making it greener.

Our research finds that after a year of Covid-19 restrictions, unemployment in Yorkshire and the Humber was 20% higher than the year before. A just transition as part of a green recovery could provide secure work for people moving out of carbon-intensive industries and those at the sharp end of the pandemic. Responding to the economic fallout of the pandemic, NEF set out proposals to create around 1.1 million jobs through an 18-month investment in energy and transport projects, as well as inherently low-carbon social infrastructure such as teaching, care, and nursing. Recent research by Friends of the Earth argues that 24,000 green apprenticeships could be created in Yorkshire and the Humber over three years, to prevent the economic scarring of long-term unemployment on young people. These jobs should be well-paid, secure, unionised, accessible to all and should address existing inequalities in the labour market. They should also be good and green throughout the supply chain, considering the impact on workers and communities both in the UK and globally.

So what does a just transition in Yorkshire and the Humber look like? To begin with, it must involve workers and communities. A steelworker at Liberty Steel we interviewed told us:

Information [should be] cascaded up rather than down. If it came from bottom up and people could actually see what was happening, they’d be able to see the accountability. But at the minute… they feel helpless.”

Genuine social dialogue with workers and communities will also provide a counter-balance to the industry-led decarbonisation plans that are currently attracting government funds and attention. Many of the region’s largest emitters are relying on future deployment of technological solutions such as Carbon Capture and Storage to prop up their business model. Over-relying on these rather than focusing on tried and trusted methods of reducing emissions now risks both climate action and jobs in the longer-term. Investing in renewable energy, nature recovery, public transport, waste reduction, retrofitting buildings and social infrastructure could create hundreds of thousands of good, green jobs and healthy, sustainable communities.

We argue that the recently formed Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission has an opportunity to build trust in transition as it formulates its regional climate action plan. It should use this opportunity to create a forum for workers to air their fears and expectations of changes that are bound to affect their lives. While the precise shape of plans should be subject to careful and place-specific co-design, we argue that the government should support the just transition through a national framework that includes a Just Transition Fund to support regions with devolved powers to enable reskilling, capacity building and engaging workers and unions in the process.

As Bill Adams, Regional Secretary of the TUC in Yorkshire and the Humber says: We can revitalise towns and communities that have lost traditional industries and make better jobs available to the millions in insecure jobs on poverty pay. But this can only happen with mayors and government working in social partnership with trade unions.”

Image: istock

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