The Government’s promise to ‘level up’ by reducing regional economic disparities will be almost four times harder as a result of the pandemic, according to one report, as agenda is criticised as a slogan without substance.Think tank Centre for Cities’ annual study of the UK’s major urban areas found that hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in towns and cities across the country need to find secure, well-paid jobs to improve their region’s overall economic prospects.
Cities and large towns went into the pandemic with different economic strengths and weaknesses, different levels and types of employment and different industries, with Doncaster identified as an area in need of levelling up pre-pandemic.
All these factors have affected the nature of the economic damage done by Covid-19 — and will affect how places begin to recover once the pandemic is behind us.
Cities and large towns whose economies needed to level up before the crisis — those outside the Greater South East — now face the extra challenge of recovering from Covid.
In less than a year, the pandemic has made levelling up four times harder according to the Centre for Cities report. The unprecedented increase in the number of people claiming unemployment related benefits since March 2020 means that the number of people that now need to find or improve their job situation to level up the North and Midlands has increased four-fold.
Doncaster Chamber Chief Executive Officer Dan Fell said, “In South Yorkshire, we have more people claiming unemployment-related benefits than at any time since the 1990s.
“If the government are serious about levelling up, they must work with us to address this challenge. They must be fully committed and define their strategy. Levelling up needs to be measurable and quantifiable if it is to be more than an empty slogan.
“Supporting our economy back to pre-Covid levels also should not be considered levelling up; Government came to power promising to invest in infrastructure and people and to change the way we do business as a country. We therefore need a gear change not just in what we do but how we do it also.”
Prior to the third lockdown being put into place, at November’s spending review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £4bn Levelling Up Fund. The fund will target the places most in need across the UK, the Treasury document said, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and rural and coastal communities, and “help to level up and create opportunity across the UK for people and places”.
However, Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis has raised concerns that that funding support for regional development would be substantially cut next year and that much of what is left will be taken back from local control to Whitehall.
Dan Fell added: “Dan Jarvis is absolutely right to have raised concerns about the level of resource coming into regions to support economic development. No replacement for Local Growth Funding has yet been announced, leaving regions short of valuable resources. A relatively small and centrally administered levelling up pot seems – to me – to be the antithesis of devolution and empowering regions.
“I hope that this report acts as a reminder to government of their election commitments and encourages the government to change course ahead of the March budget. In that budget we need to see scaled up support for the economies hit hardest by Covid-19, a commitment to impactful infrastructure projects that will catalyse growth and resource for regional agencies – for example in south Yorkshire – that know far more about what our local economy needs at this time of crisis than people in Westminster and Whitehall.”