Covid-19 makes levelling up the North and Midlands four times harder and risks ‘levelling down’ the South

The Covid-19 pandemic makes levelling up the North and Midlands four times harder and risks ‘levelling down’ the South.

Press release published on 25 January 2021

Levelling up could be eight times harder with a slow vaccine roll out and long lockdown

  • Birmingham, Hull and Blackpool face the biggest challenges
  • Political dilemma for Government as the South also needs support.
  • Better adult education, transport investment and improvements to urban centres needed.

Covid-19’s economic damage makes the promise to level up the North and Midlands four times harder and risks levelling down prosperous places in southern England. This is according to Centre for Cities’ annual study of the UK’s major urban areas – Cities Outlook 2021.

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. As a result, the task of levelling up is now four times harder.

While lockdowns are necessary to save lives, the likelihood of a nightmare worst-case scenario where levelling up becomes up to eight times harder, with 1.3 million people needing a job to level up areas outside the Greater South East, increases the longer restrictions continue.

Birmingham is the city facing the biggest levelling up challenge, followed by Hull and Blackpool.

Cities facing the biggest levelling up challenges post-Covid
City Percentage point reduction in unemployment needed to level up
Birmingham 6.7
Hull 6.5
Blackpool 6.5
Bradford 6.4
Liverpool 5.8
Source: ONS, Claimant count 2020, population estimates 2019.


Covid-19 has also hit many previously prosperous places in the South disproportionately hard. The Government must act fast to prevent a levelling down of these places that the whole UK depends on to create jobs and fund public services.

Since last March there has been an unprecedented rise in people claiming unemployment-related benefits in the Greater South East of England compared to the rest of the country. Almost half (43%) of all claimants since then live in the Greater South East, despite it accounting for just 37% of the UK’s population. Last March only 31% of unemployment claimants lived in the Greater South East.

London’s, Crawley’s and Slough’s futures are among the prosperous places of concern due Covid-19’s potential long-term impact.

The Chancellor should announce how he will deal with Covid-19’s short-term damage to cities and large towns. The plans should include:

  • Making permanent the £20 rise in Universal Credit.
  • Supporting jobless people to find new good jobs.
  • Consider the merits of a renewed Eat Out to Help Out scheme for hospitality and non-online retailers once it is safe.

Acting to prevent further economic damage by Covid-19 is not the same as levelling up. Once the health crisis ends, the Government will need to spend additional money on further measures to level up, including:

  • Further education to train jobless people for good roles in emerging industries.
  • Making city centres better places for high-skilled businesses to locate.
  • Improvements to transport infrastructure in city-regions.

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.”


Notes to editors

Copies of the full report and interviews with experts are available on request.

About Centre for Cities

  • Centre for Cities is a research and policy institute, dedicated to improving the economic success of UK cities.
  • We are a charity that works with cities, business and Whitehall to develop and implement policy that supports the performance of urban economies. We do this through impartial research and knowledge exchange.

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