A THINK tank has released a report arguing the government’s levelling-up agenda is going to be made significantly harder because of the impact of Covid-19.

Centre for Cities is an independent think tank focused on understanding and improving the economies of the UK’s largest cities and towns.

Dr Nick Gray, a Research Associate at Teesside University’s Centre for Social Innovation and part of the PACE regional policy think tank, said: “The excellent work in the annual Cities Outlook report from Centre for Cities has generated plenty of discussion.

“There is substantial local and regional interest with the report suggesting that the The Tees Transporter Bridge situated on the River Tees connects Middlesbrough to Port ClarenceCovid-19 crisis is likely to make levelling up the North-East region three times more difficult.

“While the think tank argues that Middlesbrough has not been among the hardest hit economically, the interaction between existing need and the economic effect of the crisis means that for areas like ours, in urgent need of levelling up before the pandemic, the challenge is much bigger.

The Northern Echo: Dr Nick Gray was a policy advisor in local government before becoming a research associate in the Centre for Social Innovation at Teesside UniversityDr Nick Gray was a policy advisor in local government before becoming a research associate in the Centre for Social Innovation at Teesside University

“We echo calls for government to strengthen its commitment to level up cities and regions like ours.

“Cities Outlook makes several headline recommendations and it’s worth considering them in the context of Middlesbrough and Tees Valley.

“First, we’ve no hesitation in backing the call to retain the emergency support measures, including the £20 universal credit uplift and furlough scheme.

“We’d agree that investing in skills is clearly essential to levelling up.

“The recent Skills for Jobs white paper proposes building on the work of Mayoral Combined Authorities (and LEPs) with local actors working together on skills improvement plans.

“From our perspective, we want Further Education and universities to work closely together to develop routes into higher education for people of all ages and backgrounds in our region.

“Cities Outlook emphasises the importance of employment in foundational economy sectors such as social care and education that are vital in lagging regions like ours.

“Alongside this, Tees Valley Mayor and Combined Authority have set out an ambitious plan for long term growth and the region will need the continued backing of national government in its longer-term ambitions to nurture endogenous development and grow its export base.

“Investing in transport would be welcome, and not only capital investment.

“Public transport in our region is widely seen to be expensive and complicated, a problem that requires ongoing financial support and a change in the way transport is managed, ideally regulation by local and regional government.

The Northern Echo: The Curve building at Teesside UniversityThe Curve building at Teesside University

“Levelling up rhetoric has tended to emphasise (currently relatively cheap) capital investment, but any serious attempt to reduce spatial disparities will need increased-day-to day spending on the services to address long term socio-economic challenges, most obviously education and health.

“This too has implications for future pandemic preparedness.

“As has been all too plain, unhealthy societies are ill prepared for such catastrophic events and there is now indisputable evidence that socio-economic inequalities and resulting health disparities have exacerbated the impact of Covid-19 on populations.

“We’ve argued before for investing in innovation. Previous attempts to change the way government distributes R&D money have met resistance within government, sometimes woolly compromises, and limited success.

“It is essential that Tees Valley helps keep this discussion alive in the face of competing political priorities and inevitable counter lobbying."

“When new funding becomes available, local institutions working together, are best placed to identify local specialisms and areas of potential.

“This is likely to mean devolving funding to local institutions where there is capacity, with central government helping places build that capacity where it is not.

“There is evidence of this process working well in the Tees Valley, where the Combined Authority and regional anchor institutions such as Teesside University work collaboratively and with a shared agenda.

“Pressing ahead with devolution will be vital but the status of devolution within levelling up is unclear, with the much-trailed devolution and recovery white paper delayed and possibly reduced in ambition.

“Building local and regional state capacity in the face of fiscal pressures will be essential to any real attempt to level up.

“Local government is already struggling financially, and without properly funded public service, discrete economic development policies are tinkering around the edges.

“We’d argue that the best way to improve city and town centres, making them more attractive to business is to properly fund local government rather than have councils enter endless competitions for ring fenced funds, adjudicated and managed from Whitehall.”

For more information on PACE visit tees.ac.uk/schools/ssshl/pace.cfm