Over the course of the pandemic, the bustling, busy city spaces of the world have – for long periods – lain empty as citizens retreated indoors to shelter from the virus. These empty spaces and closed doors have become a powerful, visible symbol of the impacts of the pandemic, which have been felt keenly by the UK’s eleven “Core Cities” of Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.
The virus spread quickly through deprived neighbourhoods – disproportionately in cities – that already suffered from poor social and economic outcomes prior to the pandemic. In England, COVID-19 mortality rates were more than twice as high for people from the most deprived 10% of local areas compared with people from the least deprived, and almost four times as high for those under 65 . The economic impacts hit hard too, especially in Core Cities reliant on sectors such as retail, face-to-face services, and culture, where social distancing requirements led to waves of, at least temporary, business closures and, despite significant government support measures, job losses, clouding future growth prospects.
The pandemic forced the Core Cities to look back in order to look ahead
The OECD’s latest policy brief Leveraging Productivity in UK Core Cities for Post-Covid 19 Recovery reveals that the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated many pre-existing challenges, including deprivation and inequality, and calls for a greater focus on boosting skills, employment and job creation in recovery strategies.
As highlighted in the OECD’s earlier study, Enhancing Productivity in UK Core Cities, launched in March 2020, the Core Cities account for around a quarter of the UK population and output, but are not contributing their full potential to national prosperity. While second-tier cities in most other large OECD countries match or surpass national productivity levels, the Core Cities remain at only 86% of the national average.
The UK’s Core Cities fail to punch their weight due to a number of factors. The first of these is relatively low levels of skills. At 9.7% the share of the population without any recognised qualifications in Core Cities remains above the national average (8%). Secondly, low levels of public investment in economic assets (relative to London), result in constrained transport networks, weakening agglomeration effects, and create less attractive propositions for growing firms and private investors. The UK’s spending on transport investment and maintenance as a percentage of GDP has been low for several decades compared to other advanced economies, and skews towards London, which has the highest regional spending per capita on transport within the UK. Third, the UK’s relatively centralised system of governance compared to other countries limits the scope for tailored, targeted investments to seize new opportunities and tackle emerging risks and challenges. In 2019, central government funding accounted for 64% of total local government finances in the UK, compared with only 38% on average for 37 other OECD countries .
Joining forces within and across places will be critical for recovery
As vaccinations pave the way for recovery, there is hope now for a new beginning. Throughout the crisis, Core Cities have risen to the challenge, and demonstrated their ability to lead the recovery. Citizens and local governments have formed new partnerships to respond to emerging needs and protect the most vulnerable, unleashing a wave of innovation and determination across civic and community leadership. Examples include rises in volunteering, adapting urban design, reclaiming public spaces for people rather than cars, and rethinking the location of essential urban functions to ensure access to services and amenities, whilst securing residents’ safety and health.
The pandemic has also revealed the important connections and interdependencies between cities, towns and villages, and the need for cohesive governance structures and geographies that accommodate these linkages, leverage on agglomeration effects and the benefits of digitalisation and high rates of digital access in Core Cities, and provide incentives to lift all places up. Unprecedented levels of communication and collaboration between central government and the Core Cities during the pandemic should be retained to co-design the recovery.
Acting now for a brighter future
The Core Cities should build on their experiences in handling the pandemic to create a platform for the recovery that maintains and accelerate positive trends. This means increasing digital adoption within government, schools, and firms. It means, in turn, tackling skills gaps, particularly those that hamper digital adoption. It means retaining and expanding successful experiments with urban design that support cleaner, greener, and more inclusive city life, tackle infrastructure deficits and make cities more attractive places to live and work. And it means working across levels of government to better align and tailor initiatives to local circumstances. By doing so, Core Cities can play a vital role in the national recovery from COVID-19 and shape a more resilient, sustainable and inclusive future for the UK as a whole.
 Unequal pandemic, fairer recovery The COVID-19 impact inquiry report, The Health Foundation (2021)
 Subnational governments in OECD countries: Key data (brochure), OECD, (forthcoming)