Core Cities: the impact of the first wave of Covid-19

This briefing examines the economic impact of Covid-19 from the first national lockdown to understand how the 11 Core Cities are likely to be affected by continuing restrictions and what the shape of their recovery might look like.

Briefing published on 22 February 2021 by Anthony Breach

Whilst Covid-19 has left no part of the UK untouched, the city centres of London and the Core Cities have experienced the greatest impact.

The Core Cities are an alliance of 11 cities — Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.

This briefing outlines that, whilst a large part of the economic damage appears to be temporary, Covid-19 has changed and may continue to change residents’ behaviours towards city centres, spending and urban travel.

The briefing finds that:

  • Working from home has driven changes in city centre footfall, with footfall unlikely to improve until workers return
  • London and other large cities saw slower and more stunted recoveries in city centre spending than in smaller cities
  • Air pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the Core Cities, even though city centre commuting has not

The Core Cities now face a distinct challenge: how to support the immediate recovery of their city centres and the tens of thousands of jobs in them as the economy is opened up again.

The recommendations of this briefing are that the newly created Urban Recovery Taskforce focus on reopening city centres and supporting their recovery and growth, which will in turn aid the Government’s ‘Building Back Better’ and ‘levelling up’ agendas.

What needs to change

 This briefing then sets out the policy responses needed to support the bounce back of city centres and to improve the long-term economic performance of the Core Cities. It recommends:

1. A campaign to encourage public transport usage once it is safe

The challenge ahead will be to encourage city centre workers and firms to return to offices once it is safe to do so. A campaign that inspires confidence in the return to the safe usage of public transport should be a priority for the Core Cities and the Urban Centre Recovery Taskforce.

2. Restarting efforts to tackle air pollution

The rise in private transport usage over the course of the pandemic has raised concerns about longer-term impacts on air pollution. Cities should look to restart their pre-pandemic policy changes to improve air quality, such as introducing Clean Air Zones.

3. A focus on commercial property

New planning reforms mean the commercial property market will be more flexible. Local government will need to ensure that the Core Cities continue to have access to a supply of high-quality city centre office space whilst new homes are built to meet residential demand.

4. The improvement of local skills

Improving the skills of each city’s population will be essential once the pandemic is over. Greater clarity is needed on how the new Local Skills Improvement Plans will be led in the Core Cities, especially those with metro mayors where overlapping responsibilities between different local organisations exist.


This research was conducted in partnership with Core Cities.

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