In Depth

North vs. South: how coronavirus has widened Britain’s wealth gap

Government recovery plan criticised as think tank reveals pandemic has hit northern regions hardest

The coronavirus pandemic has deepened the inequalities between people living in the south of England and those in the north and Midlands, new research shows. 

The newly published State of the North report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reveals proportionally higher levels of unemployment and child poverty in northern regions, despite Boris Johnson’s pledge at last year’s election to “level up” the UK.

“Covid-19 has thrown our long-term inequities and lack of resilience into a stark spotlight,” says the think tank. “A recovery that simply restores the old order would be unsustainable and – for many – unacceptable.”

What did the IPPR find?

The IPPR says the North is “experiencing levels of unemployment not seen since 1994” as a result of the pandemic, with areas subjected to the harshest Tier 3 Covid restrictions suffering the most.

“In October, 657,900 people claimed unemployment-related benefits in the north of England, with Tier 3 Blackpool, Middlesbrough and Hull among the hardest hit,” the report says. “That is almost double the number in October 2019, when there were 340,220 northern claimants.”

The report says that rates of child poverty are also higher in the North, affecting one in three children, while the gender and ethnicity pay gap is wider and life expectancy is below the average for England.

Although the hardship is disproportionately affecting the North, however, areas of the South are also feeling the ill effects of the pandemic.

Of all the English regions, London has seen the biggest year-on-year increase in unemployment benefit claimants, with an extra 302,910 people signing up for income support - a 5% rise. 

By contrast, the southwest of England has seen one of the lowest annual percentage increases in joblessness, at just 2.9%.

Why lies behind the differences?

The report suggests that the disparities are down to a “one size fits all” approach to compensating coronavirus-affected areas that fails to take into account historic differences between the North and South.

A “decade of austerity has eroded resilience” across the North and “severely hampered its ability to deal with the social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic”, the authors say.

The publication of that verdict comes after Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (pictured top) accused Boris Johnson of playing a “game of poker with people’s lives” by forcing the city back into the highest Covid restrictions in October.

Burnham warned that local people faced “a winter of real hardship”, after ministers pushed the region to accept less than the £65m requested “to prevent poverty, to prevent hardship, to prevent homelessness”. 

Johnson has also faced growing pressure from his own backbenches, with a number of the Tory intake who won seats in the “Red Wall” in last December’s election calling on the government to honour its pledge to invest in northern regions.

What is being done?

Responding to the IPPR report, a spokesperson for HM Treasury insisted that the government is “totally committed to levelling up opportunities across the whole of the UK as we build back better”.

Downing Street is taking “significant steps with new investment in green technologies to create thousands of high-quality jobs in the North, setting out plans for freeports, and investing £100bn in infrastructure to boost growth”, the spokesperson added.

The measures are part of Johnson’s plan for a “green industrial revolution”, which the prime minister says will create up to 250,000 jobs in green energy, many of which will be in the North, Midlands, Scotland and Wales.

But despite the plans, IPPR North director Sarah Longlands is warning that with “Brexit is just around the corner”, a “recovery from Covid-19 that simply restores the status-quo - which has failed so many Northerners - would be unacceptable”.

“The government was elected on a promise to ‘level up’ places like the North,” she said. “But one year on, they don’t have a plan to reduce inequalities between and within regions in England, and the inadequate, centrally controlled, competitive ‘levelling up’ fund announced in the spending review simply won’t cut it.

“We need to challenge old, reductive assumptions about our economy because they’ve failed to create the conditions for a good life for everyone in the North.”

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