The big city-small town split is Britain's new dividing line

Northern MPs say the south is getting a better deal from Covid - but the real losers are big cities, while small towns get a chance to shine

Blackpool's economy is doing remarkably well for footfall, while London is suffering  Credit: The Image Bank

Conservative MPs are in uproar. The much-heralded "levelling up" agenda was meant to help their constituents in formerly Labour seats that turned blue with such enthusiasm less than a year ago.

But instead they are under tighter lockdown restrictions than much of the rest of the country.

Far from spreading prosperity to the rest of the country, regions under tier 3 restrictions fear being pushed further behind richer regions.

So what does the North-South divide look like now - and is it being felt in regional economies?

The split in Covid restrictions is clear enough. Liverpool was the first English city to go into tier 3. Manchester followed, with much gnashing of teeth, with other towns, cities and entire countries joining them. 

Wales is in a "circuit breaker" lockdown, with Northern Ireland also imposing much tighter restrictions.

London is in tier 2, as is Essex and the north east of England, while Scotland’s five tier system comes into force next week.

Some parts have had tougher rules for some time - early hotspot Leicester spent much of the summer with tougher restrictions, for instance, as did Aberdeen.

On a colour-coded map it looks reasonably dramatic, though it is far from a straight split between put-upon northerners and off-the-leash southerners.

One way to see the effect of restrictions on the economy is to look at footfall - how many people are going to high streets, shopping centres and retail parks.

Data company Springboard compiles the numbers week by week, indicating different patterns by region.

Last week compared to the previous week, the biggest fall was in Northern Ireland. Footfall plunged more than 12pc, indicating the sharp effect of lockdown. Wales was next with a fall of 3.8pc, followed by Scotland’s 2.7pc.

Footfall in most English regions dipped by between 0.5pc and 1.6pc, although it increased a little in the East of England and held flat in the East Midlands.

Looking at the longer-term picture, footfall in Wales and Northern Ireland is down 40pc on the same week a year ago, with Scotland next, down 38pc.

Next is London - down one-third - closely followed by the North and Yorkshire.

Least affected are the South East and South West of England, each down by about a quarter.

This indicates a significant fall in all regions, but seemingly the south has got away relatively lightly.

Clearly those tight restrictions outside England have had a severe effect - but it is not the only factor at play.

Before the three-tier system came into effect this month, the divide was more often between big cities and smaller ones.

Larger cities, led by London, typically suffered the sharpest drops in footfall and the slowest recoveries. Tumbling numbers of office workers and tourists devastated local economies.

By contrast towns were less reliant on the daily flow of commuters into central offices, and so lost less from the surge in working from home.

Some have even benefitted from the restrictions with seaside towns in particular being able to cash in on the rise of staycations as holidaymakers seek domestic destinations instead of flying off overseas.

The Centre for Cities tracks footfall across the country. In terms of post-pandemic performance, the top 10 locations all had more visitors at the end of September than they had before Covid struck. Of those, five are in the north of England, four in the south and one in the Midlands.

Including Basildon, Blackpool, Burnley and Bournemouth, they are all typically small or mid-sized. 

By contrast the bottom 10, with the biggest falls, are larger. London, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham top that gloomy list.

It shows lockdowns are not the only thing which matter: population is crucial too.

To illustrate the impact of lockdows versus size, look to Leicester and Aberdeen. Both suffered more local restrictions over the summer because of outbreaks in the cities, yet both have recovered far more than London.

The Centre for Cities’ recovery index has Aberdeen at 74, Leicester at 75 and London at just 35, compared to a pre-pandemic starting point of 100.

When it comes to "levelling up", London’s big advantage is suddenly a disadvantage. The great mix of millions of people is fantastic for the economy in normal times, but a dire drawback in a pandemic.

This could mean the country becomes more equal for a time as London is levelled down - after all, the capital’s struggles now do not help Manchester, which is in a similar fix, or Edinburgh.

But in relative terms, smaller towns are doing better. Some are even becoming more prosperous in absolute terms, attracting more visitors than they did before Covid.

It could be suburban Britain’s chance to shine, showing off their small-town charms to home workers, domestic tourists and home-movers through this gloomiest of years.

Do you think the big city-small town split is Britain's new dividing line? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.