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The town COVID might kill

When discussing the casualties of Coronavirus, the focus thus far has been on the actual human costs. The daily briefings have focused on the methods of avoiding new infection and increasing testing capabilities, as the majority of the media solemnly chalks up the new batch of mortalities every 5pm. This sombre, yet captivating, spectacle has held our collective attention and is likely to dominate discussion of the pandemic’s effects long into the foreseeable future. For some however a less apocalyptic, but possibly equally bleak, reality looms just over the horizon

Before getting to a rough sketch of what that future may look like, I want to draw your attention to my hometown. Crawley, is a fairly large town nestled in the pleasant and picturesque landscape of South East England. Crawley is a new town both in origin and in character, with the bulk of the town only being established post 1946 by the New Towns Act. Equally its demographics reflect a new cosmopolitan Britain, being only one of two towns in West Sussex where white British constitutes less than 90% of the population (being at 72%). In essence it’s an interesting place, well located in the heart of the Home Counties whilst not necessarily being beholden to their slightly more antiquated rural traditions.

Despite Crawley being slightly more economically active than the wider south east, its residents earn around £3000 less per annum. Equally the sectors in which people are employed diverge significantly from the middle class professions represented by the rest of the South East with around 23% of its population being categorised as group 6-7 service workers versus 15.5% across the rest of the South East. Similarly, Crawley is less educated with 38% of its residents being educated to degree level compared to 44% in the South East.

This difference is of course explained, by the elephant in the room: Gatwick Airport. Britain’s second largest airport handles over 40 million passengers per year and is situated so close to Crawley. The airport is naturally Crawley’s largest employer with the airport claiming to provide 24,000 jobs directly and allowing for 12,000 indirectly. Gatwick is, in short the town’s greatest boon. However, it seems Crawley’s crutch is about to get kicked clean out from under it.

In recent reports assessing the vulnerability of various towns to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 measures taken by various governments around the world, in this report they assessed Crawley to be by far the most vulnerable town in the UK, categorising over 50% of the towns jobs as either vulnerable or very vulnerable.

It should go without saying that job loss on this scale could, and likely will devastate the town. Since the writing of this article began both BA and Virgin Atlantic have announced an end to their operations at Gatwick, losing 10’s of thousands of jobs at the airport. As councillor Peter Lamb pointed out in an interview, it won’t only be those jobs directly linked to the airport that will be lost. Another source of Crawley’s income is the County Mall, probably the largest shopping centre outside of London or Brighton. Whilst I’ve been unable to find a reliable source on what percentage of the towns retail expenditure is linked to the airport, from my experience working in the town centre as a sales assistant for 2 years, both travellers passing through en route to or from the airport, and airport staff constituted a large portion of the clientele.

A lot of the discussion around the issue both online, and personally from family and friends has centred on government bail outs of airlines as the solution to Crawley’s impending crash. However with estimates suggesting that air travel will take upwards of 3 years to recover to pre-pandemic rates, and the government decision to expand Heathrow over Gatwick, suggesting they believe it would make a better centre for air travel in the south east, it seems quite possible Gatwick will never recover to the position it held at the beginning of 2020.

That however doesn’t need to seal Crawley’s fate, with good transport links to both London and Brighton, the collapse of Gatwick potentially providing an abundance of ex industrial (and cheap) land, and businesses like Nestle and Thales already using it as a centre for UK operations, there is a very plausible future in which the town exploits the ever increasing nature of London’s  house prices, to reinvigorate itself as a commuter town for a new generation of young professionals who are tire of extortionate rents and the inaccessibility of the property market.

In conclusion, whilst my home towns future may be looking dire now, with the virus dealing a likely irreparable blow to international air travel, and the likelihood of the government dispatching a metaphorical knight in shining armour appearing to be vanishingly small. There is most definitely a place for the town in what is looking to be a very uncertain, future that nonetheless lends itself to a range of possibilities that didn’t previously exist. In essence we cannot rely on the government for what happens next, local leadership from the likes of Peter Lamb, will be essential, and I for one wish him all the best.

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