The Covid-19 pandemic could make it more difficult to “level up” cities in the North of England, a new report has found.

After winning the 2019 general election, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to “unite and level up” the UK and address the regional differences between the more prosperous and less prosperous cities in the country.

However, a report by Centre for Cities, a research and policy institute focused on improving the economic success of UK cities, warned that Covid-19 may make this increasingly difficult.

In its Cities Outlook 2021 report, the non-profit said that the economic impact of the pandemic could make it four times harder to level up the North and Midlands, and could lead to the levelling down of prosperous places in southern England.

It said that this was partially due to the fact that 634,000 people outside the Greater South East now need to find secure, well-paid jobs to level up the country, compared to 170,000 in March 2020.

Furthermore, extended lockdowns and a slow vaccine rollout could make levelling up eight times more difficult, with 1.3 million people needing a job to level up areas outside the Greater South East in the worst-case scenario.

According to the research, the city of Birmingham faces the biggest levelling up challenge, followed by Hull and Blackpool.

Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter said:

“Covid-19 will leave a lasting legacy. While the economic damage could be felt in many cities and towns for decades, it will be worse in places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up.”

“The pledge to level up the North and Midlands was made on the assumption that places in the South would remain prosperous. Covid-19 has shaken this assumption, with cities ranging from London to Crawley now struggling.

“Levelling up the North and Midlands and stopping the South’s levelling down will not be cheap and will require more than short-term handouts. Government support and investment for new businesses in emerging industries will be essential, as will spending on further education to train people to do the good-quality jobs created.”

Centre for Cities also urged the government to act fast to prevent the levelling down of previously prosperous places in the South, highlighting that there has been an “unprecedented rise” in individuals claiming unemployment-related benefits in the Greater South East of England since March 2020.

The organisation recommended that once the Covid-19 crisis has subsided, the government prioritise further education to train people for jobs in emerging industries, make cities appealing places for high-skilled businesses to relocate to, and improve transport in city-regions.

Liz Scott, head of entrepreneur engagement at Tech Nation, said:

“The tech sector currently employs almost three million people on salaries that are, on average, £10k higher than other sectors. Tech companies are continuing to hire at pace during the pandemic – currently one in four job vacancies in Belfast are in tech. At the same time, the sector represents an engine of growth for cities outside of London and the southeast – our latest Tech Nation Report revealed Manchester was the fastest-growing tech city in Europe.

“By 2030, estimates suggest 50% of the UK economy will be in the digital, tech and creative industries. We therefore heavily support the Centre for Cities call for increased training and further education for those in ‘old economy’ sectors now at risk of unemployment. A focus on digital upskilling should be top of the agenda, and a key part of any regional industrial strategy.”


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