Post Covid recovery: what now for levelling up?

The Tees Valley economy

Tees Valley has long term socio-economic challenges that developed in the wake of the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s. Economic productivity (measured by Gross Value Added (GVA) per head of population) in Tees Valley is less than 75% of the UK average. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis the unemployment rate in Tees Valley was low by its own historical standards (c. 5% in February 2020) but still well above the national rate. The region has a relatively low concentration of people in higher skilled and higher paid jobs and is more reliant than many places on lower paid employment. Health is a significant barrier to work and rates of long-term sickness among the economically inactive are high. Parts of Tees Valley have very high levels of deprivation. For example, the 2019 English Indices of Multiple Deprivation demonstrate that Middlesbrough is, on many measures, the most deprived in England and that deprivation here is especially concentrated. These factors are likely to interact with the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, necessitating careful analysis and locally designed policy.

Levelling up

Levelling up has replaced rebalancing as the buzz term in regional policy and, as is often the case with voguish political ideas, it is a somewhat hazy concept, characterised by an ambitious rhetorical emphasis on re-industrialisation. Given the fuzziness of levelling up as a concept, an analysis of its implications is difficult, but readings of political statements and briefings reveal several consistent themes. First there is a possible shift in geographical focus away from the urban rhetoric of recent years, together with ambitions to boost manufacturing through active industrial policy. Next there are the familiar themes of infrastructure investment and regional dispersal of civil service jobs. Levelling up may also feature a reprisal of special economic zones (SEZ) in the form of free ports and perhaps development corporations with relaxed planning. In addition, devolution remains at the centre of policy discussions and there is also significant interest in the decentralisation of public funding for research and development. Reflecting on these ideas what might be the opportunities and risks for a region like Tees Valley?


The Covid-19 crisis will not end with a quick economic rebound. For regions such as Tees Valley, the crisis will likely amplify long-standing problems beyond the reach of discrete economic development or industrial policy. Planning for the economic recovery will be a huge task, perhaps without modern precedent, for government at all levels. Geography or “place” is vital to an understanding of economic processes and the current debate around local Covid restrictions has highlighted that regional nuances in policymaking is the right approach. With this understanding, policy and interventions for the short and long term will need to be informed by a deep understanding of how the economic crisis has and will unfold differently across the country. The response will require effective partnership working across all levels of government and between different subnational institutions; this must include local and regional government, businesses and business representative groups, colleges and universities. It is essential that the immediate recovery policy response seeks to understand local nuance in moves to mitigate the immediate effect and minimise long-term damage. In Tees Valley, collaborative working between stakeholders within the region and beyond has a long history and the solutions-based approach to regeneration adopted by the combined authority, local anchor institutions and regional actors exemplifies positive partnership working and presents a model of how others could operate.



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Nick Gray

Nick Gray


I’m paid to do research @TeessideUni. Political economy, regional policy, and poorly framed photos of post industrial Tyneside.