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The economics of COVID-19 could affect a different sort of town

How does a small town cope with the impact on the social fabric of the COVID-19 lockdown?

A recent Guardian short film set out to answer just this question. Daisy Chain depicts, in detail, the emergence of a local support structure in the tiny Cornish community of St Just. The documentary is a powerful account of the chain of volunteers after whom the film is named – led by town councillor, Daisy Gibbs.

Situated at the very tip of Cornwall, St Just is about as remote as it gets. It is a tiny settlement (technically a ‘community’ not a town, according to the Centre for Towns’ taxonomy) that lies within the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

While you might expect a place like St Just to be more ‘tight knit’, by virtue of their geography, the film shows how the ‘daisy chain’ was a necessary response to the economic challenges – in an isolated community which is heavily reliant on tourism and fishing. Rural deprivation is acute, and existing challenges of food poverty became all the more entrenched through the pandemic outbreak.

Image of St Just, taken from original source

As we enter a new set of restrictions – this time with winter approaching – it is worth thinking about how towns like St Just will come through.

Analyses during the first COVID-19 lockdown found that many of the areas worst affected by the economic fallout from the virus had a particular profile. They were not necessarily the most deprived towns when it comes to unemployment or industrial decline, but were fragile in other ways.

An RSA briefing on the topic from earlier this year, for example, suggested that the worst hit regions would be “largely rural areas located in the north or south west of England.” It added that “Many are national parks, coastal towns and other tourist hotspots where the economy is geared towards hospitality and retail.”

Other research corroborated this. Our partners at the Centre of Towns compiled an analysis of the towns most reliant on ‘at risk’ sectors. Topping their final list were places which combined physical remoteness and a reliance on tourism – the likes of Newquay, Skegness, Whickham, Cleveleys and St Ives (Cornwall).

Meanwhile another assessment, for Tortoise Media, looked specifically at the settlements which saw the biggest drop in immediate sales thanks to the virus. Their countdown includes the likes of Penrith, Penzance, Colwyn Bay and Whitby.

The journalist Ed Conway wrote last month that the UK was potentially facing a recovery from the pandemic which resembles a hand with the fingers spread out. That is, a recession characterised by its “arbitrary nature,” whereby certain jobs and industries survive and even flourish, while others crash.

Conway’s point was that COVID-19 impacts on different sectors in unpredictable ways: “No pilot could have foreseen that his or her job was about to become ‘unviable’.” Nor could someone in the pharmaceutical industry have known that their services would become quite so in demand.

This is the case with towns as well as with people and sectors. While COVID-19 will cause immense economic damage everywhere, some of the worst-affected places are those which have traditionally been quite secure. The virus’s economic long-term impact will be, above all, hard to forecast.

Kendal in the Lake District, Stratford-upon-Avon in the Midlands and Banbury in Oxfordshire are not deprived towns, for example, but all three had among the highest furlough rates in the UK during the first lockdown. These destinations rely on arts and heritage sectors, and on visitors from outside. With large numbers unable to work, they sat alongside towns which are traditionally more likely to be seen as struggling.

When looking at places experiencing economic decline we frequently discuss regions where heavy industry has departed. Our own focus at HOPE not hate often finds that the settlements experiencing deprivation and decline are the most hostile to migration and multiculturalism.

A big risk of COVID-19 is that a new and different tranche of places join the list of struggling towns – creating new and unexpected challenges for their social fabric.


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