New Times,
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Britain’s coronavirus economy is what levelling up looks like in practice

The government’s economic revolution has arrived early.  

By Stephen Bush

Part of the story of the United Kingdom’s regional inequalities can be told through the LinkedIn profiles of communications directors in local authorities in towns and villages.

More often than not, their journey to their current role will run through time at a local school, before heading off to university, followed by a series of successful jobs in London, Manchester or Bristol and then one back home on a reduced salary. (It doesn’t have to be a communications director: you can see this pattern in most parts of the country.)

Is this person better off? Well, in many cases they can afford to buy a house for the first time, and enjoy a shorter commute and a better work-life balance. But they often have to travel further to enjoy leisure activities, their children have a worse choice of schools than if they’d stayed in London, Manchester or Bristol, and their disposable income is lower, at least in cash terms. (In real terms, the picture is more complex.)

The quality of schools is part of the same story. There are many reasons why England’s great cities can attract a better quality of teachers – the proximity of a better night life, restaurants, galleries, better leisure activities and so on – but one of them is that it is easier for their partners to find work if they live in a big city than it is if they are in a town or a village.

That, in essence, is the challenge the government has set itself: more and better private-sector jobs throughout the UK, which in turn ought to generate more and better leisure activities (though this requires the right policy incentives in place too), and for the improvement in schools in England to be less concentrated in its great cities, and to achieve all this while lowering the UK’s carbon emissions.

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The rise of distanced working is a dream come true as far as those objectives are concerned, ending at a stroke the need for employers and employees to enjoy a close geographical relationship and challenging much of what a lot of us thought about cities and their importance to growth, at least superficially. (I still think there are major benefits to city living and in-person working: though equally the costs of discarding both may well be considerably less than the cost to GDP of, say, leaving the single market and customs union.)

You no longer need to invest in increasing the transport links between cities and their surrounding towns, in a new generation of nuclear power plants (bringing with them not only clean energy but high-skilled jobs outside cities) or in making England’s other great cities as productive as London, but simply in improved connectivity. High-skilled jobs can go anywhere. 

There’s a big loser in this story: the young and those at the start of their careers. For every person in their mid-thirties who chooses to prioritise living in their hometown over their job in the city, a space is made at the bottom of an organisational charity in one of England’s great cities.

There is arguably a second group of losers: people currently employed by businesses servicing the needs of people in England’s great cities – cafés, restaurants, dry cleaners at stations and so on. I don’t actually buy this, however: I think in practice these jobs will be recreated elsewhere. The major force holding back the creation of new jobs in cafés, pubs and restaurants in residential areas is Covid-19 itself: while people working from home cannot decide to treat themselves to a nice lunch on the off-chance, or while a distanced workplace cannot easily run social meet-ups, these new leisure activities don’t have sufficient demand to get lift-off. Contain the virus to a point where restrictions on social distancing can be curbed and the jobs lost servicing workers in city and town centres will re-emerge in local economies.

From an electoral perspective, though, that first group of losers doesn’t matter all that much as far as our present government’s political priorities go. This is a government elected largely but not exclusively by voters aged 40 and over, and so they don’t have to worry that much about acting in the interests of a young person at the start of their career.

The coronavirus economy is the economic future the Conservative Party nominally wants: more diffused, with jobs and prosperity that can be dispersed anywhere around the UK with a decent broadband connection, at a lower carbon cost. They’ve just arrived at it at greater speed, and with therefore more disruption than they would want, that’s all. If they aren’t doing their utmost to hold these changes in place and to accelerate rather than reverse them, it’s not clear to me what version of levelling up they really want to develop in practice. 

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