Questions and answers about coronavirus and the UK economy
Questions and answers about coronavirus and the UK economy

A local crisis, everywhere

Newsletter from 18 December 2020

We need a new language for national crises. Take the crash of 2008. Then, the problem was pretty much the same across the country (and in other advanced economies) – banks had too little capital. The solution was also similar (bailouts, public ownership) and those hit by the crisis faced comparable difficulties: credit was tight for small businesses in Dagenham and Dundee alike.

Covid-19 also spans the nation, but it is no longer ‘national’ in the same way. Case rates, rules and regulations vary hugely by region. The toll, in terms of economic hardship, varies too. Perhaps it is better to think of this as a local crisis, but everywhere. As we head towards Christmas one thing is clear: London and the South East are in the firing line (Figure 1).

Figure 1: New Covid-19 cases (7-day average)

Source: UK Gov, code to embed here.

In light of this, Observatory users – those using our ‘ask a question’ function, our writers and our readers – want to take a closer look at this national crisis. Of course, people ask about economy-wide matters like inflation. But many queries are more focused: hence our recent pieces on citiesregions and hard-hit industries. An emerging theme is how sub-national policy – whether regional or sectoral – is working. City mayors – often with relatively new devolved powers – are facing their biggest trial.

A couple of months back, the charts above looked terrible for the North West, with Greater Manchester a particular concern. An Observatory piece on economics and policy in Manchester published this week, digs into the detail of the city-region’s experience. This is not just a piece about a great industrial city, but reflects the regional theme that could drive policy debates in 2021.

The analysis, by Mike EmmerichDaniel Timms and Danielle Jackson starts with some troubling numbers. The fatality rate has been almost double that predicted by population numbers. And workers have suffered: the share of potential workforce claiming benefits has more than doubled, and at 8.9% is well above the nation-wide ratio of 6.3%.
On its own this is troubling. It also leads the writers to a puzzle: Manchester – hub of the Northern Powerhouse – was supposed to be a shining light, an example of how devolution can improve outcomes. Only Manchester and London have mayors with powers to shape public services (for Manchester, health; for London, health and crime). Why did a city with locally-led services suffer so badly?

Economically speaking, a previous strength for Manchester – that it has lots of commuters – has turned into a weakness. The authors point to evidence showing that large cities suffer when footfall drops. And compared with its peers – Liverpool, say – Manchester is especially exposed (see Figure 2). With so many people working from home, local businesses suffer.

Figure 2: Ten largest travel to work areas in England and Wales by population

Source: ONS Population estimates by small area

An even bigger question relates to poor health outcomes. Part of the answer, the authors explain, is that the £6 billion health and social care budget comes with lots of claims and players. In addition, the city did not – unlike the devolved nations – have the power to mandate its own ‘tier’ restrictions. Close up, regional devolution looks like a messy halfway house: a lack of full responsibility or control.

Another piece this week with a distinctly regional flavour looks at consumer spending, which has recovered unevenly across UK regions. The team (Benedict Guttman-KenneyEdika Quispe-TorreblancaFabian GunzingerJohn Gathergood and Neil Stewart) describe a big data problem – the lag in government statistics. To get over this they use cutting edge data obtained from individual credit cards. This means that their numbers are available at a local level, and with a delay of just one day. The national level has been astonishing: the data show economy-wide spending fell by 29% in the year to April 2020, but was up 12% year-on-year by October.

Again, up close, things look different. The spending recovery was fast in the South and around London, slower in the Midlands and Wales, and non-existent in the North East and Scotland (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: October 2020 year-on-year growth in overall credit card spending by NUTS 2 area

With London and the South East set to face stronger tier 3 restrictions, one worry is that the recovery there will be snuffed out. In fact, the authors offer some hope. Their data allow them to filter between spending online and in person. Londoners seem to be doing most of their spending with the click of a mouse, suggesting that the consumer rebound can continue even if restrictions get tighter.

Economics Observatory – news and numbers

As a sign off to 2020 on behalf of the core team here at ECO, I would like to thank everyone involved in the Observatory project so far. It has been an extraordinary effort. Since launching the website at the start of June, we have published 210 articles and nearly a dozen short films, with over 370,000 page views and 70,000 users reading our work.

In 2021 we will be back with a revamped website, interactive charts, new videos and, with any luck, some in-person public events around the country. We will still be publishing articles next week, including a holiday reading list from Diane Coyle, so keep an eye on the website for new content.

Have a great break and best wishes for 2021.

Richard Davies

Published on: 18th Dec 2020

Last updated on: 22nd Dec 2020

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