As we emerge from lockdown the scale of the economic damage wrought by COVID-19 is becoming clearer: The economy suffered its biggest contraction in history and policymakers need to be flexible and bold to ensure our cities and towns are not permanently levelled down.
Cities and towns across the country have experienced the lockdown differently. The North was hit hardest first. Last month unemployment rose fastest in Blackpool, Liverpool and Hull. This month tells a different story: Luton, Northampton, Slough, London and Crawley have seen the fastest rises in unemployment, suggesting that the damage is spreading south. Added to this, many of the places with the largest unemployment increases also have some of the highest proportions of furloughed workers.
Levelling-up was always going to be difficult. But if our more prosperous cities and towns are badly hit by COVID-19 we may achieve a more equal country, but also a poorer one. Levelling down.
To avoid this the Government should be cautious about how it withdraws the furlough scheme. As I’ve noted, the places with the fastest growing shares of people becoming unemployed are also where the most people are furloughed. If the scheme is withdrawn too quickly and inflexibly it will make a bad situation worse.
Additionally, government must avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to recovery. It’s no coincidence that Slough, Luton and Crawley have all been hit hard; their local economies are dependent on aviation. They need plans that recognise the important role the local airports play to their economies. Similarly, Derby needs tailored support to manage the fall-out from redundancies at Rolls-Royce. And big cities will need support to restart their city centres which have seen dramatic falls in footfall during lockdown.
Failure to act could create a situation where the Government oversees a levelling down of the country – not a levelling up.
Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities