THE Government must not be “let off the hook” when it comes to levelling up the North, the chamber of commerce has said, following research which shows it may be three times more difficult due to the impact of Covid-19.

Research published today by the Centre for Cities found the economic damage wreaked by the pandemic makes the Government’s promise to level up the North-East almost three times harder, with Middlesbrough facing the greatest challenge.

The number of people needing to find secure, well-paid jobs in the region's cities has soared to 47,700 – up from 18,300 last March.

James Ramsbotham, chief executive, North East England Chamber of Commerce said: “This report confirms the difficulties facing our region going forward due to the Covid pandemic. Businesses are facing major challenges and in some sectors, urgently need more Government support to overcome these.

“We were promised the country would be levelled up. These may be unprecedented times, however, our starting point in terms of health and employment was far lower than the rest of the country.

"The urgency of our region getting effective support not just for Covid but also the fall out of Brexit cannot be overstated. We already knew it would be hard for Government to achieve its levelling up promise but just because it is now harder due to Covid doesn’t mean it has been let off the hook in delivering it.”

Simon Clarke, Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said the Government was "keenly aware" of the challenges faced by the region.

He added: "It would be naive to think that there would be no impact on future spending as a result of the Government's unprecedented response to the Covid-19 crisis.

"But our commitment to levelling up stands nonetheless."

Last year, the Government announced a £4billion levelling up fund for local improvement projects and a national infrastructure bank headquartered in the North.

Richard Holden, MP for North-West Durham said he hoped to see further details of this in coming weeks.

He added: "Cities are crucial to our region, but so are towns and villages and they will feel even more so. They are big economic drivers, but we cannot level up by just looking at cities."

According to the study, the pandemic risks levelling down prosperous places in southern England, making the challenge all the greater.

The report warned of a possible “nightmare worst-case scenario” where levelling up becomes up to eight times harder, with 1.3 million people needing a job to level up areas outside the South East.

Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter said: “Levelling up the North and Midlands and stopping the South’s levelling down will not be cheap and will require more than short-term handouts."

“Government support and investment for new businesses in emerging industries will be essential, as will spending on further education to train people to do the good-quality jobs created.”

The report says the Government will need to spend more money on further education to train jobless people for good roles in emerging industries, making city centres better places for high-skilled businesses to locate, and improvements to transport infrastructure.

Labour's Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham, who led a debate in Parliament about the failure to invest in Tees Valley last year, said: "Yet another report demonstrates what we already knew – that we need much more than rhetoric and £4 billion for the 'North' from the Government if levelling up is ever to be achieved."

Citing increases in child poverty, and rises in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit, he added: "It is time to end the rhetoric and start the investment to preserve and create jobs – but also address the inequalities in health.”

Darlington MP Peter Gibson said: "Levelling up, decades of under investment by all governments in the north, saddled with wasteful labour councils in our town halls will take some time to progress. I do not underestimate the scale of the task, and I will continue to press the case for investment in Darlington."