REPORT: How the UK can respond to the COVID-19 crisis

By on 18/06/2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted society in the UK in countless ways beyond the obvious healthcare crisis. The economic, social and psychological impact of the virus is yet to be fully counted, but even the government’s extensive measures to cocoon the economy can not be enough to completely shield it from the ravages of the virus. Though the UK is one of the world’s leading economies, it is well recognised that many communities and regions within the UK were already struggling to thrive as economies prior to the virus reaching our shores.

The UK government had already begun to undertake a ‘levelling-up’ agenda to reboot local economies post-Brexit. This levelling-up programme has become even more vital to help these places deal with the impact of the virus and ensure they don’t fall further behind.

CPI UK looked around the world for prominent examples of regions and communities responding to significant economic downturns to offer inspiration and hope as to how places in the UK could respond to COVID-19. Our search has resulted in seven case studies, demonstrating a wide variety of approaches:

  • Germany’s Kurzarbeit, the German federal work-sharing scheme (2009)
  • Newcastle’s Economic Downturn Response Plan (2009)
  • Sweden’s implementation of regional coordinators (2008)
  • Korea’s Regional Innovation Plan in Busan (2004)
  • Sweden’s National Strategy for Sustainable Regional Growth and Attractiveness (2015-2020)
  • The UK’s Northern Highland Initiative (2005)
  • The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (2001)

We have categorised these seven case studies into the three phases of crisis response often used in government: fight, recover and rebuild. The case studies we have identified try to highlight what governments around the world have done in different stages of crises and the practices they have used to help places cope with crisis and overcome it. All of them were assessed for their relevance and ability to be applied to parts of the UK and they offer, albeit with some adjustments to processes and mindsets, hope and a pathway forward.

The selected case studies and stories alone cannot, of course, provide the answer to how the UK could boost local economies enabling them to respond to a downturn created by this crisis, but they do provide valuable insights, lessons and inspiration.

Far from being accidental or one-off initiatives, in all cases national governments played a pivotal role in creating the conditions for successful local transformation. By giving local actors the power and ownership to drive progress, national governments supported them to convert existing potential into success.

The case studies also provoke discussion about the role that central government can best play to successfully support place-based and regional initiatives, building on existing potential, strengths and local ideas. The UK is unlike many of the countries profiled in that many already had strong regional governance and local autonomy before the implementation of the identified schemes. However, the case studies show us that when national governments adapted to the challenge, appreciated the culture and history of the problem they faced, they found success.

Below highlights the key insights and actions we identified from the case studies:

  • Look beyond ‘quick fixes’ and aim to build long-term resilience beyond the crises
  • Understand the potential of a place through local eyes and help people build on it
  • Ignite local missions that mobilise people and actors across multiple sectors
  • Empower existing, trusted local leadership and structures
  • Ensure initiatives are aimed at building inclusive growth for all
  • Establish a joined up and clear offer of support from central government to local government
  • Create space and opportunities for peer to peer collaboration and regional and international knowledge-sharing

These case studies show considerable success in levelling up places and regions during and after they have faced crisis. But they also raise questions about whether they could have had even better outcomes and how central government could enable more progress, faster.

Ultimately, the success we see from these cases was determined by the right combination of local autonomy and national government support.

That coordination, enabling and acceleration role that central governments played in all of our case studies was essential for rapid learning and helping small scale good ideas to succeed further and contribute towards a national vision. This is certainly something that all governments can learn from as they respond to COVID-19. Thinking about the UK specifically, there is a wealth of existing structures such as elected mayors, LEPs and Combined Authorities whose roles can support central government to accelerate regional economic development.

Place based approaches, as many of our case studies are, recognise that the communities themselves define and understand their challenges and what assets they have. Central government, in recognising that there cannot be a ’one-size-fits-all approach’, can help regions make the best of their opportunities. Central government can help to connect regional initiatives to national and international growth opportunities too.

Finally, there is often a call for firm evidence that something will work before trying it but in a crisis that is surprising us and testing us through the fight, recovery and rebuild, the case studies show there was a great deal of trust in local actors to know what was best. Common to all case studies was a sense of working together and a willingness to try new approaches with shared visions that connect and which put local people and businesses in the driving seat.

The Centre for Public Impact UK has drawn insights from around the world for the UK’s regional and local economies. Click here to download the report to learn about international precedents to level up and lessen the impacts of COVID-19.

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