The COVID-19 crisis has affected every part of the country, including my own former constituency of Loughborough. On the face of it, the virus has been primarily a public health issue, but the reality is that the unprecedented response it has necessitated means that it is also a highly influential economic and social crisis, with wide ranging consequences for all aspects of our daily lives.
One of the things which has been most apparent to me, partly because of my role as Chair of the House of Lords COVID-19 Committee, has been the pandemic’s potential to deepen inequality across the UK, potentially reversing some of the progress we have made in recent years. For example, according to the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, women’s mental health deteriorated almost twice as much as men’s during the first lockdown, due to differences in caring responsibilities and social tendencies. It’s worth also reflecting that prior to the coronavirus outbreak, women were more likely than men to be in uncertain employment, on zero-hours contracts or on part-time hours. We’re also overrepresented in shutdown sectors such as retail and hospitality.
The impact on inequality has been, predictably, unequal. Some families, some businesses, and some areas, have felt the virus’s health impacts most acutely than others, while some areas have been hit particularly hard economically and socially. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed our relationship with towns and cities, and the dynamic within those areas. There has been an impact on housing and green spaces, the changing nature of employment and public transport, and the resulting impact on inequality. It’s these kinds of issues that my Committee is considering as part of an Inquiry into the long-term impact of the pandemic on towns and cities. Critically, the Committee will also explore the potential to develop and implement an innovative vision for the future of towns and cities, especially how we create more equal towns and cities.
No part of our country and society has been immune from the pandemic, but what it has done is remind our leaders of the need to sharpen our focus on how to confront all kinds of inequality head on.
The ‘Levelling Up’ agenda is one of the Government’s top three policy priorities, partly given prominence because of shifting political sands from the last General Election, but also because rebalancing our society and our economy will be a critical part of bouncing back successfully from the seismic blow dealt by COVID-19.
That said, ‘Levelling Up’ is somewhat misunderstood, as is inequality in the UK more widely. Too much emphasis is placed on an overly simplistic North vs South divide, whereas the reality is that inequality can exist just as much within regions, counties, towns, and even postcodes as much as it can at a national level. For any policy intervention or investment to be successful, it will need to help resolve the tensions that can often exist between the large, dominant cities and smaller surrounding towns. Crucially, it will also need to ensure that investment in new infrastructure, housing, connectivity, all translates to increases in income, standards of living, health and wellbeing and the aspirations of our communities. Building world-beating infrastructure is a noble aspiration, but ultimately, it is how that infrastructure improves outcomes that matters.
That’s why the smart cities project is so compelling and why it represents such a powerful opportunity for towns and cities across the UK. It has the potential to act as a vehicle for restoring place and pride, as well as confronting social and economic issues.
I’d argue that the desire to become a smart city is, in itself, a signal of intent. It puts an overlooked town or city in the shop window and can act as a clarion call for investment. It demonstrates to potential employers, innovators, institutions and to the general public, that the town is going places and intends to be at the cutting edge of how a modern town can function. Seeking smart city status itself is part of how you can attract high-skilled, well-paid jobs and high-productivity businesses.
Secondly, it of course only stacks up if you plan to reengineer your town or city to act as a genuinely smart city. That means building homes which not only respect existing planning rules, as well as demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, but also add to the lives of the families who live there. Architecture is much more than just bricks and mortar.
Transport inevitably gets more than its fair share of attention. It is of course a vitally important component of any smart city, as well as important for realising the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. But we mustn’t fall into the trap of assuming that all transport investment is smart investment, and we must consider what transport aligns most effectively with the behaviours we want to stimulate from our citizens. Simply building more roads, for example, makes car use more attractive and reduces the need to seek out public transport alternatives.
Cities around the world are trialling innovation we which should take note of. In China, all of Shenzhen’s 16,000 buses are now entirely electric. Electric buses emit fewer carbon emissions than diesel buses and this has resulted in halving CO2 emissions, as well as other pollutants. The impact is substantial and demonstrates how in a smart city, dependencies matter. Bus travel is cheaper than car travel, so a fleet of buses helps provide greater equality of mobility. It reduces congestion, so that means less time commuting and more time with family, helping to create greater equality in childcare responsibilities and a stronger family unit. And the impact on emissions helps to contribute to confronting health inequalities, which so often penalise those who cannot afford to live in suburbia. Smart cities can deliver smart outcomes.
Back to the UK and back to the here and now, and what we need to make progress on the smart cities’ agenda, is collaboration and innovation from those both inside and outside of Government. That means using the powerful mandate given to the newly elected and re-elected metro mayors, as much as it means harnessing the voices of health professionals, business leaders, education institutions and beyond.
The global pandemic has necessitated hitting the ‘pause button’ on the smart cities’ agenda and much of the infrastructure that comes with it. However, my hunch is that it has also given many of our institutions, universities, think tanks, businesses, as well as civic leaders, an opportunity. It is rare in policy-making that you have the time to step back and plan without the pressure to act immediately. Behind the scenes, work has been progressing to make sure that when we do embrace smart cities, we do so whole-heartedly, and we realise the full breadth of the opportunity. The pandemic has dealt a blow to equality, but it may also have reminded us of the opportunity that smart cities can provide to help us address it across the UK.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of access to green space for everyone. Read our article about creating democratised access to our parks and countryside..
About the author(s)
Nicky Morgan, The Rt Hon Baroness Morgan of Cotes
The Rt Hon Baroness Morgan of Cotes was Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from 24 July 2019 to 13 February 2020. She served as Education Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities from July 2014 to July 2016. She served as an Assistant Whip in the coalition government until her appointment as Economic Secretary to the Treasury in October 2013. Nicky served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for Women from April until July 2014. She was elected Conservative MP for Loughborough in 2010. Nicky qualified as a solicitor in 1996, specialising in corporate law, and advised a range of private and public companies from 1996 to 2010.