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COVID and the City – What next for the UK’s Core Cities?

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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.


[1] Unequal pandemic, fairer recovery The COVID-19 impact inquiry report, The Health Foundation (2021)

[2] Subnational governments in OECD countries: Key data (brochure), OECD, (forthcoming)

Author profile
Nick Forbes
Chair of Core Cities & Leader of the Newcastle City Council at Core Cities | Website

Nick was elected Leader of Newcastle City Council in 2011 and used his group’s victory that year to focus the council on social justice and job creation.

He was elected leader of the Labour group on the LGA in 2016, representing local government at the highest level. He has been elected on to the Labour Party’s governing NEC and plays a leading role in helping Labour councillors contribute to party policy.

He has defended the role of local government nationally in a time of austerity, lobbying ministers in successive local government finance settlements. Nick is committed to tackling inequality and prejudice and is determined Newcastle will become a better, fairer place under his leadership. One of his first decisions was to introduce a Newcastle Living Wage, a major step towards fairness.

He has made economic growth a key feature of his council, securing new financial powers by negotiating one of the first round of City Deals with government. He has also worked with council leaders from across England to secure the best possible devolution packages for local government.

Nick is the regional lead for Transport, as part of the North East Combined Authority. He is a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum and chairs FRESH, the campaign for a smoke-free North East.

Nick was born and brought up in the North East and graduated from Cambridge University in 1997, Sheffield Hallam University in 1999 and the Open University in 2010.

He has been a Labour councillor since 2000. He trained in the NHS and was chief executive of Involve North East, a regional charity established to give a voice to communities in health and care service planning and delivery.

Author profile

As a key member of the OECD Senior Management team, Ms. Kamal-Chaoui supports the Secretary-General in achieving the OECD’s mission to advance economic growth and social progress as well as contributing to other global agendas such as the G20, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Ms. Kamal-Chaoui has held several senior positions at the OECD since 1998. From 2012 to 2016, she served as Senior Advisor to the OECD Secretary-General. In this role, she supported the Secretary-General’s strategic agenda and led the OECD Inclusive Growth initiative, the Knowledge-Sharing Alliance programme, the development of the Global Deal and the implementation of the OECD Strategy on Development. From 2003 to 2012, she was Head of the Urban Programme in the Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development. She has also previously worked in the Trade Directorate and the Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs. Before joining the OECD, Ms. Kamal-Chaoui worked for a university-based research institute as well as several media outlets.

During her extensive career at the OECD, she has forged numerous strategic partnerships and collaborations for the OECD. They include major philanthropic organisations (e.g. Ford Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Rockefeller Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations) as well as other prominent organisations (e.g. Vatican Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, Club of Madrid), multilateral institutions (World Bank, IADB, ADB, EBRD, European Commission) and the private sector. She has been a member of several International Committees and Advisory Boards (World Economic Forum Deputy Board of Trustees, Shanghai World Expo, Michael Bloomberg Mayors Challenge for Europe, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo’s Strategic Committee). She has also been a Lecturer at Sciences Po Paris.

Ms. Kamal-Chaoui is a French and Moroccan national. She holds a Master’s Degree in Macroeconomics from the University of Paris Dauphine and a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and History from the University of Paris Diderot. She recently received the "Women of the Decade in Enterprise and Leadership" award of the Women's Economic Forum.