Opinion: Could Covid unlocking help levelling up too?

In this month’s CSW editor’s letter, Richard Johnstone wonders if there’s an opportunity to reset the UK’s economic geography as the country emerges from the pandemic
Photo: Flickr - Adrian Scottow

By Richard Johnstone

05 May 2021

The government’s levelling-up drive has had a difficult year. Some of the difficulties have been of the government’s own making, as plans attached to the broad agenda – which is intended to help spread economic activity, opportunity and, yes, civil servants across the country – seemed to use varying criteria. The Towns Fund, for example, appeared to go to some of the places deemed left behind and not others, while the eponymous Levelling Up Fund didn’t include some widely accepted measures of poverty.

There have also been, of course, problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Effort that would have gone into implementing the prime minister’s election-winning appeal to traditional Labour heartlands was within months subsumed into the fight against the pandemic, from which it is only now beginning to emerge.

And, even if there had been no Covid, the pledges may have foundered for many other reasons. The inequalities and deprivation across the UK, and the north-south divide in prosperity, are long-established and have persisted in the face of efforts (though not always consistent) to tackle them.

Perhaps what this problem needs is some kind of national reset. A moment when both companies and workers reassess the value of cramming as many people as possible into a square mile of real estate in the capital and consider whether everyone needs to be in the office, all of the time. From such an idea grows the potential of people working in less-fashionable parts of the country and commuting only occasionally. Perhaps such a situation could mean that people don’t need to work as much to pay a big mortgage, freeing people up to join community groups and help invigorate the places they love. From this, young people might begin to notice that they don’t have to have a London postcode to get on, and they can choose to stay closer to home should they wish to, but bringing with them the prestige and wages of higher-paying jobs.

Or perhaps none of this would happen. But until now, we have not had a chance to find out. The coronavirus pandemic has been a dreadful national experience as many have lost loved ones and all of us have had to become used to talking about daily death tolls in a way that would have been previously unimaginable, and the nation was always going to change after such an event. Indeed, it seems to be presenting an opportunity for some of these societal changes. Companies are adjusting to remote working, so it will be a phenomenon well beyond even the depressingly long tail of Covid cases.

This is what makes the government’s urging of employees in general, and civil servants in particular, back into the office such a missed opportunity. As Dave Penman of the FDA union relays in his column this month, both the prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak seem to be readying the ground for another call back to the workplace.

This would be a shame. No-one is denying that people will need to go back into the office. There are many things that civil servants do that would be improved by being able to be in the same room as other people.

But there are also many examples where we have learned that it is less crucial than we thought. The government should harness this for many reasons – not least, as Penman notes, that greater flexibility might lessen the pain of future pay restraint. But the chance to join up levelling up with the post-Covid economy is chief among them. The government will only get this opportunity once. It should at least try to take it.

This article is taken from the April 2021 edition of CSW, which can be read in full here

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