Coronavirus Is Going to Make Britain's North-South Divide Even Worse

The town of Blackpool is uniting to withstand the pandemic. How do we stop the coming economic storm from wiping it out?
May 5, 2020, 8:00am
closed shop blackpool
Photo: Matthew Ashton / Alamy Stock Photo

The virus, they like to say, is indiscriminate. It doesn't care who you are or where you're from: everyone is at risk. In reality, of course, COVID-19 as the "Great Leveller" is a fantasy. BAME groups, healthcare professionals and low-income workers have already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its socio-economic fallout. Who you are and where you're from is everything. For the UK, among other things, this means a renewed conversation about regional disparity.

A recent report by think-tank the Centre for Cities suggests that the economic fallout of the pandemic could cause uneven damage across the country, dependent on the vulnerability of certain industries. Their research indicated Crawley in West Sussex could be the worst hit. As the main employment hub for Gatwick airport, 53,000 of 94,000 town's jobs are in aviation, all of which are considered high risk.

But it's not just aviation. As the economic shock of COVID-19 continues to unfold, towns and cities heavily reliant on vulnerable sectors face far more troubling futures than most. Nowhere is this truer than in Blackpool.

blackpool happy dayz

Photo: MediaWorldImages / Alamy Stock Photo

Chris Huggitt owns the Higgitt's Las Vegas Arcade, an amusement arcade with a popular "£1 burger bar" attached. The cheap burgers, he tells me over a video call, entice in customers who invariably spend their change on the slot machines. It's a business that thrives on a high volume of customers. "That's Blackpool's nature," says Chris. "Pack 'em, stack 'em, rack 'em."

Blackpool is operational during an eight-month season that ends in November, before reopening at the beginning of March in time for the Easter weekend. "I was shut down for four months before this started," Chris explains, "and was only open for three weeks before I was shut down again." While he could have continued to operate his burger bar as a takeaway, he quickly realised this was financially impractical. There was no trade whatsoever. The promenade was empty.

Alan Cavill is Blackpool Council's director of communication and regeneration. As he sees it, the town faces a uniquely difficult set of circumstances. "We're talking here about an economy of around £3.8 billion, of which 1.8 is tourism," he explains over the phone, "so roughly half the economy is not operating."

"It's a bit of a double whammy for us," he continues. "We've got everything everybody else has got, plus the fact we're reliant heavily on an industry that requires people to interact."

Since it first rose to prominence during the industrial era, as a holiday destination for cotton mill workers on "Wakes week" breaks, Blackpool has always loomed large in the British imagination. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, its booming tourist trade sustained a robust year-long economy. However, with the rise of package holidays to Benidorm and Lanzarote in the 1980s, the town's fortunes began to decline.

As the family holidays were switched for stag-dos and the B&Bs converted to bedsits, the once thriving town has fallen far behind the country's more prosperous standards. Statistics released towards the end of 2019 revealed it to be one of the poorest areas in the UK, home to eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. It has been one of the antidepressant capitals of the UK since 2011. Coronavirus presents a substantial threat to this already precarious ecosystem.

Jeff Green is the general manager of Recycling Lives, a food redistribution centre in the Northwest, and part of the Fare Share network. They are responsible for distributing food from upwards of 500 suppliers – ranging from large supermarkets to small groups – to approximately 200 organisations across Lancashire and Cumbria. They have been working around the clock to meet unprecedented demand, while dealing with limiting social distancing measures in their workplaces, he tells me over the phone.

Blackpool is a place Jeff knows well. Last year, Recycling Lives helped food partnerships in the town establish a new distribution warehouse, meaning it was comparatively well positioned to cope with the sudden increase in demand. "In places like Blackpool, where a lot is dependent on people coming into the town and spending money, we know there's going to be a bigger need," Jeff explains.

Right now, Blackpool council is dealing with the current crisis – fielding volunteers, housing the homeless and supporting care homes – while also preparing the town to re-open at short notice. This means a number of measures, from giving retailers breaks on business rates to preparing the zoo for social distancing. Alan Cavill describes the response from the community as unbelievable. "We've done things that we wouldn't have dreamt of doing in normal times," he adds.

But it will be impossible to fully cushion the blow. Blackpool's tourist trade is the axis on which the town turns. An empty year will cause a ripple through all areas of civic life.

When we speak, Chris Huggitt praises both the government and the council, through which he's already received a £10,000 grant. But he remains concerned as to what a silent summer could do long-term. Even if some restrictions are lifted before the peak season, from June to August, he believes a combination of continued distancing measures and empty pockets will keep people away. "We're dealing with disposable income. People come to arcades for a flutter, a bit of bingo, a game of pool," he says. "My problem isn't going to be opening, my problem is going to be people not coming."

blackpool tourists

Tourists in Blackpool. Photo: parkerphotography / Alamy Stock Photo

It is clear now that the coronavirus pandemic will cause an economic downturn to rival the Great Depression. The IMF has already been forced to revise its 2020 global growth forecast from an increase of 3.3 percent to a contraction of 3 percent. For perspective, global activity shrank by 0.1 percent after the 2008 crisis, until now the most substantial shock of the postwar era. In late April, a Bank of England policymaker warned that the UK could be suffering its worst economic shock in several hundred years. Everywhere will suffer, but recovery will be much more uneven.

The report by the Centre for Cities, alongside similar studies, anticipates a troubling widening of gaps between regions with already disparate fortunes. Places like Derby, with its reliance on auto-manufacturing, stands to struggle disproportionately. At the other end of the scale, Oxford, with its high-concentration of "managerial" jobs, stands a much better chance of bouncing back. "The crisis will aggravate the situation as it already is," the report's author, Kathrin Enenkel, says over Zoom.

"We have the most concentrated deprivation in the country," Alan Cavill says of Blackpool. "There were a lot of people already adrift. If there are no prospects for them at the end of this, no jobs, it could easily make things worse. That would be a problem that would take an awful long time to solve."

The places set to suffer are the towns and cities that are already fragile: those with limited exporting bases, many ex-industrial, mostly northern, often coastal. Rather than levelling the playing field, the pandemic looks set to expedite the decline of some of the UK's poorest regions, while adding new names to the ever-growing list of left behind.

Blackpool's story is likely a familiar one to many; not just those who live there (or somewhere with a similar economic profile), but to anyone who has read about British politics during the past few years. These "other places", defined in broad brushstrokes by a southern media, have been a recent obsession of the UK's commentators: the realisation of latent neglect made suddenly apparent by the result of the EU referendum, or more recently the fall of the "Red Wall" during the 2019 General Election. Until COVID-19 arrived, "levelling up" Britain's forgotten towns was Boris Johnson's flagship policy.

Yet despite its newfound fame, regional disparity has been a long, drawn out process. Half a century of deindustrialisation, a decade of austerity measures and an absence of meaningful investment (state or otherwise) has left Britain with the worst levels of regional inequality in Europe. Demographic shifts and generational divides laid bare in recent years are the fruits of decades of neglect and gradual disconnect. Coronavirus simply presents a sudden acceleration.

Turning this around will require responses that are sweeping in ambition while remaining local enough to recognise the differences between places. One-size-fits-all remedies that work in the southeast will fail in coastal towns of the northwest, or manufacturing regions in the Midlands. Where investment goes, devolution must follow.

In this respect, the pandemic could present solutions as well as problems to the UK's regional lags. In Blackpool, civic participation has never been higher. Whether through mutual aid networks or volunteering at food banks, a transient population of often seasonal workers have been forced to pull together – and long-absent feelings of ownership are returning. Alan Cavill believes this could be the key to renewing the town when the time comes. "There's a fragmented community here," he says. "I think that's changed."

This is also something Jeff Green of Recycling Lives has seen in his work across Lancashire and Cumbria. "I think there's a new enthusiasm," he says. "I've seen people's community involvement, their sense of belonging… I don't know what it's going to be, but I think there's a new norm coming."

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