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Levelling Down: How Regional Inequality Is Growing under Covid-19

Before Covid-19, the Tories promised to 'level up' Britain's post-industrial regions – but new research shows they have been hammered by the pandemic and government support has been thin on the ground.

Shortly before the onset of the current pandemic, Britain’s regional inequalities were among the leading concerns of political discussion, in a way they hadn’t been for several decades. Boris Johnson’s Tories, lest we forget, had promised to ‘level up’ regions that had trailed behind their more affluent counterparts for many years; they were then rewarded with a swathe of previously Labour-held seats across the North of England, Midlands, and Wales.

Just over a year since the fateful general election of December 2019, and as the economic ramifications of Covid begin to bite, the indications are—predictably—that the most disadvantaged regions are particularly vulnerable. A new report from researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Industrial Communities Alliance, has again made clear the scale of the problems now facing post-industrial Britain.

The study focused on the pandemic’s economic, labour market, and public health impacts in older industrial towns, former coalfields and the major regional cities across Britain – areas accounting for roughly one-third of the country’s population between them. The researchers found that having already been well behind much of the country prior to the pandemic, the situation in the former industrial heartlands is now ‘substantially worse’.

In particular, from February to November 2020, older industrial towns saw unemployment increase by 310,000, with a corresponding rise of 140,000 in the major regional cities and 100,000 in the former coalfields. Across these areas as a whole, the report found, the out-of-work claimant count has risen to a total of nearly one in every six adults, having almost doubled among 16 to 24-year-olds. The decline in unemployment of the preceding decade has, in effect, been undone by the economic effects of the virus.

The public health effects have, likewise, been generally worse across the post-industrial areas than in most other parts of the country; at the start of this year, the rate of confirmed Covid infections had averaged between 10 and 20 percent above the UK average, while in former coalfields and ex-industrial towns, the average cumulative death rate was some 30 percent higher than the UK average.

Why were these areas so vulnerable to the pandemic, both economically and in terms of public health? One factor is that many of the jobs in the former industrial regions, unlike office-based work, could simply not be done from home; the warehousing and logistics sectors, the report notes, are among those which have carried on more or less as normal throughout the current crisis. Inadequate financial support, including parsimonious statutory sick pay, has left many of the poorest workers effectively unable to self-isolate.

The government has been decidedly reluctant to extend that support, in case people continue to expect it as a right after the pandemic is over. It has refused to budge on statutory sick pay—among Europe’s lowest—or to make the emergency £20 boost to Universal Credit a permanent one. Reports that it would pay £500 to those who tested positive so they could self-isolate were rapidly slapped down. As Jo Michell wrote in a recent Tribune article, Rishi Sunak appears eager to pull the plug altogether at the first opportunity.

Old industrial towns and the former coalfields, home as they are to older and poorer populations, were already plagued by serious health inequalities even before Covid struck. The Marmot review, published in February 2020, revealed that after a decade of austerity, improvements in life expectancy had halted for the first time in over a century, with signs that it had in fact started to fall for the poorest women in the most deprived regions: namely northeast England, and Yorkshire and the Humber.

Reflecting the warped political priorities and vindictive social biases of ten years of Conservative government, the poorest areas were also made to bear the brunt of cuts to council services. According to a 2019 report from the Centre for Cities, local government spending across Britain had been cut by half since 2010, with central grants to councils slashed. Barnsley, the worst-hit local authority in Britain, weathered a spending cut of 40 percent; nearly two-thirds of the council’s budget was accounted for by social care.

The authors of the Sheffield Hallam report, Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill, conclude that the former industrial regions ‘will still lag behind most of the rest of the country when the crisis finally recedes’ and warn the government that there remains a ‘pressing need’ for it to make good on its promises about ‘levelling up’. Residents of the more deprived regions would be wise not to hold their breath here, pork-barrel politics in key marginals aside.

Britain’s regional inequalities are enormous. As Tom Hazeldine has argued, the country is ‘a special case of uneven development’ even compared to its European neighbours, a number of which are themselves noted for their regional disparities. Britain looks increasingly unlikely to survive its own in one piece. Some 20 consecutive opinion polls have indicated majority support for Scottish independence, though Johnson will be loath to let it happen on his watch. Welsh independence is a more distant prospect, but that could soon change.

There have also been calls, some more tongue-in-cheek than others, for Northern England to free itself from Westminster rule. As an alternative to a revanchist English nationalism, this has its attractions. However, the chances of there being any meaningful devolution of power to the North and the other English regions remain minimal; even Labour’s 2019 regional manifestos, though containing ambitious and detailed plans for economic reform, had relatively little to say about redistributing political power to them.

It’s unclear, in any case, how far the party remains committed to this regional development agenda under Keir Starmer. But there ought to be important lessons for Labour: specifically, that it’s not enough for the party to congratulate itself on its newfound moderation, or to patronise people with flags and mood music, and that instead it needs to offer a concrete vision for the economic renewal and democratic empowerment of long-neglected parts of the country. It has to offer, in short, a better and more dignified life.

Too often, Labour has fallen back on economistic arguments rather than addressing and harnessing legitimate popular desires to deepen and strengthen democratic participation. It has been quick to dismiss the appeal of Scottish and Welsh independence as ‘divisive nationalism‘ while apparently blind to its own long-established propensity for wrapping itself in the Union Jack and proclaiming its unquestioning fealty to the visibly decrepit institutions of the British state.

That decrepitude now stands fully exposed by the pandemic. Four decades of hollowing out basic state capacities, outsourcing and privatising seemingly anything that wasn’t nailed down, have torn up the social fabric and put the wellbeing of millions at avoidable risk. So too has the last decade of austerity, including the wilful neglect of the health service, despite ample warning what that meant for pandemic preparedness. Now Britain’s most disadvantaged communities, north and south, are suffering the consequences.

With past Tory governments having done so much to exacerbate regional inequalities, it would be mistaken to expect this latest one to break such an ingrained habit. Indeed, right-wing outriders—still afforded the kind of media prominence their arguments don’t merit—are busy sounding the alarm about government borrowing and making the case for further austerity. Professing the need for post-pandemic belt-tightening would provide the Tories with a convenient excuse for watering down whatever ‘levelling-up agenda’ they might have.

If Labour is to arrest its precipitous decline and hang on to the old heartlands it still holds, while rebuilding in those it lost at the last general election, it will need to grasp the nettle. It will need to rediscover a radicalism—both economic and constitutional—which has not, to date, been evident under Keir Starmer. Britain’s regional inequalities are causing real indignity and suffering, and neither half-measures nor warm words will redress them.