Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of Warwickshire County Council and the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association.
The recent lockdowns in Leicester and much of Northern England are a timely reminder that Cornavirus has not gone away, that for all of us many restrictions still remain in place, and that unfortunately it is unlikely that life will return to normal for some time.
However, since my last article for Conservative Home, at the end of May, the nation as a whole has experienced a significant relaxation in the Covid-related restrictions, including the re-opening of restaurants, pubs, cinemas, hairdressers, hotels, and campsites and various other types of businesses on July 4th.
In the run-up to what became known as ‘Super Saturday’ councils played a crucial role in supporting businesses, venues, and high streets, as well as some of our own civic amenities and services, to prepare for the re-opening and in communicating to residents the changes that were being put in place.
However, in order for our high streets to re-open the businesses that had previously operated there had to still be in existence. The fact that many of them were was in large part due to the decisive action that the Government and councils took during the preceding months.
As Conservative Home readers will be aware, the Government has provided an extensive package of support to workers and businesses throughout the crisis, including the furlough scheme, business rates relief, the Small Business Grants Fund, the Hospitality and Leisure Grants Fund, and the Discretionary Grants Fund.
Local government was the delivery mechanism for much of this support and councils have worked hard to distribute almost £11 billion to more than 800,000 eligible businesses.
For many councils this has involved responding proactively and flexibly to the unprecedented circumstances; for example, by setting up dedicated teams and redeploying staff to process applications as well as using websites, social media, and traditional media to reach businesses that were eligible for funding but for whom they did not have the relevant information.
This provided a lifeline to struggling businesses worried about their future and I am extremely proud of the work that Conservative councils undertook in the months and weeks preceding the easing of the restrictions.
For example, Medway Council has processed and issued more than £35 million in financial support to businesses overall, and more than £1.6 million on top of that to small businesses specifically as part of the Government Discretionary Grants Fund.
To highlight just one example from my own county, Warwick District Council has issued 2,395 payments totalling £31,080,000 to local businesses, representing a 93.8 per cent payment rate.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Midlands, Walsall Council has a 94.6 per cent payment rate and it is joint top with Dudley Council, also Conservative-led, in the ‘league table’ of councils in Birmingham and the Black Country for the number of grants paid.
Of course, whilst keeping businesses afloat so that there was a functioning high street to return to in July was essential it was also critical that people were confident enough to return to their old shopping habits when they were permitted to do so.
Again, we in Conservative local government were grateful for the additional funding that we received from central government to help facilitate this.
For example, the £50 million ‘Reopening High Streets Safely Fund’ was used by councils to introduce a range of practical measures ahead of July 4th, including new signs, street markings and temporary barriers, and by businesses to adapt their services, for example by introducing contactless payment facilities.
Marketing campaigns were also launched in councils across the country to explain the changes to the public and reassure them that their high streets were safe places to visit.
For example, in Harborough the district council sought to reassure shoppers with a number of proactive measures, including deploying council officers in high visibility jackets to provide information and advice, setting up hand sanitiser stations and using street stencilling to indicate where people should queue.
In addition, in collaboration with Leicestershire County Council, road closures were introduced to facilitate social distancing and safe queuing, thus giving people greater confidence to return.
Meanwhile, Warwick District Council has worked with its market operators to put in place a phased return of the popular weekly markets in Warwick and Kenilworth whilst also introducing free parking in all of its off-street cark parks.
However, whilst many suburban shopping centres are seeing increasing numbers of people returning each week, concern has been expressed about city centres and larger shopping areas.
Again, Conservative councils are doing all that they can to ensure that these are safe places which people feel confident visiting.
Over 80,000 jobs in Westminster depend directly on the hospitality industry and the city council has worked with landowners, businesses and residents to develop more than 50 separate street-wide schemes that deliver outdoor dining areas. These include footway widening, providing tables and chairs in former parking spaces, and, in some cases, timed pedestrianisation of streets.
Furthermore, whilst the Business and Planning Bill was going through Parliament, the council introduced its own interim scheme that allowed businesses to trade outdoors. For example, a fast track tables and chairs licensing scheme, which costs businesses just £100, and temporary events notices, allowed businesses to get up-and-running outdoors within a week.
As we enter August, with the advent of the Government’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme and many of us enjoying a staycation, it is to be hoped that domestic tourism will give a much-needed boost to the economy and Conservative councils have led the way in highlighting the many great things that there are to do in the UK.
For example, in Medway, the council is actively promoting its own heritage attractions, such as Rochester Castle, The Guildhall Museum, and Historic Dockyard Chatham, all of which have reopened and are welcoming visitors again.
Clearly, the battle against Coronavirus is not yet won, but I know that in the months ahead, Conservative councils will continue to do all that they can to support their communities and get their local economies going again as part of the national recovery effort.