The Other “Yorkshire” (A different economic perspective)

In a galaxy far, far away; well OK then; in Canada there is a young pretender. York County was founded in 1792. In 1971 it became a regional municipality. It is quite a bit smaller than our Yorkshire. It has an area of 680 square miles compared to Yorkshire’s 6,068 and it has a population of 1,110,000 compared to ours which is around 5,400,000. The administrative centre is not York but the town of Newmarket. York is situated slightly further south within the boundaries of York Region’s slightly larger neighbour, the city of Toronto.

York is now a district of Toronto, but Toronto was known as York or “Muddy York” from 1793 until it was renamed in 1834. Many of the places in and around Toronto have names that can be associated with Yorkshire, for example, Bradford in York Region, Whitby and Pickering in Durham Region and Scarborough in Toronto itself.

Yorkville, Toronto

Our sister region is, therefore, a hinterland of Toronto. There are not many similarities with Yorkshire. The landscape is probably flatter and not quite so varied. The road system is pretty comprehensive but public transport is not exactly great, so I suppose there is one similarity.

The key factor about the whole area though is that economic activity appears to be on a massive scale. I have never seen so much construction at any one time. The civic powers that be in Vaughan, one of the larger cities within York Region, decided that they needed a city centre. Vaughan had been an amalgamation of several districts but with no downtown core, so they decided to build one from scratch. They cleared a large area of low-density use buildings, not quite a square mile but not far off, and now they are in the process of putting up office blocks, flats and so on. When I was there earlier this year, there were just a few completed office blocks and a metro station looking rather lonely on their own. Even the bus stop was temporary. The metro line has been extended out from Toronto to serve the centre, but it will be some time before the centre actually takes shape.

Vaughan Metropolitan Centre

The scale of everything is different. The metro line extension to Vaughan also serves York University which has about 53,000 students. The Vaughan station also acts as a hub for other areas of the city, so the line is already well patronised. The trains are fairly quick, very frequent and pretty efficient compared to what we have here, but the network is far from comprehensive. If you have to rely on the bus to complete your journey, then the experience is very similar to that which we have to cope with on a daily basis. In fact, I found it worse; delays, cancellations etc. On the whole though, the car is king and without one people struggle.

Downtown Toronto

The greater Toronto area has a population of around 6M, most of whom seem to use cars. Imagine a city the size of Yorkshire and you get the picture. Economic activity is probably overheating. As reported recently in the Financial Times, according to the Rider Levett Bucknall Crane Index there were 120 cranes on the Toronto skyline at the last count in July. To put that in perspective, that is more than New York, Chicago and Los Angeles combined. Northern Powerhouse eat your heart out. Consumer activity also appears to be booming. The mega malls rarely seem quiet. Vaughan Mills, which is probably York Region’s largest, is pleasant enough to visit, busy but not overcrowded. The Eaton Centre, on the other hand, always seems to be heaving. I dread to think what the rents are like.

Toronto Eaton Centre

All this activity comes at a cost though. Household indebtedness is giving very real cause for concern and house prices are rising at unsustainable rates.

What our sister region has taught me is that the Northern Powerhouse is not even in the running yet. If you want to see an economic powerhouse in action, pop over to Toronto for a few days. We can take on board some of the things they are doing there. We definitely need more construction to alleviate our housing shortage and it would also be good if businesses felt confident enough to embark on some more commercial construction. The metro system, where it runs, is generally very good. We really need something like that in our larger cities, but I am convinced that we could be streets ahead in terms of joined up public transport if we put our minds to it. A higher level of public spending could also engender the economic feel good factor that they seem to have in Toronto, whilst not allowing things to get out of hand. Attitudes generally seem more positive over there which I believe is something that we will have to work on.

There are lots of lessons to be learned but I believe that we should be able to build our own recipe for economic success; sustainable growth at a reasonable pace without the risks of excess. Clearly, we need to create the environment for this, but we are nowhere near there yet. We should be showing others the way, but we appear to have lost our edge. We need to see things from a global perspective not just from Yorkshire, the UK or Europe. When you look out there, you can see that things are happening very quickly, and we are falling behind. As a trading nation, the UK needs to keep its eye on the ball. If it does not, then it will become irrelevant and that most certainly will not be good for us here in Yorkshire.

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