Covid-19 has struck at the very heart of what cities do best: bringing people together both to exchange ideas and information, and to enjoy leisure time visiting their galleries, parks and sports stadiums. The result is that previously bustling public spaces and workplaces in cities across the country have become deserted since March 2020.
This has been most clearly seen in the city centres of the UK’s largest cities. The 11 Core Cities have higher shares of new home working than other places, and many of those jobs are normally based in city centres. Accordingly, the Core Cities’ city centres and public transport usage did not recover as restrictions eased after the first national lockdown even as other economic, car mobility, and air pollution indicators returned to normal. This may give some indication of what will happen when restrictions can again be eased and, finally, removed entirely.
This poses a distinct challenge to the Core Cities that sets them apart from most other parts of the UK: 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.
City centres have played an important role in the past growth of the cities and the regions that surround them. That means the reopening of city centres and supporting their recovery and further growth will be important for the delivery of the Government’s ‘Building Back Better’ and ‘levelling up’ agendas. This should be a central focus of the newly created Urban Centre Recovery Taskforce.
It is important too that the policy response to Covid-19 is separated from the longer-term need to bolster their role in the national economy. The Government will not be able to level up the country as it has promised without improving the longer-term economic performance of the Core Cities, and this will require a focus on skills, transport and infrastructure, and on the costs of success such as air pollution.