District Matters by Tony Jefferson

In my last column I said that I was not sure that many people had understood the implications of the biggest economic downturn in centuries. Despite the continual flow of grim economic news I am afraid that this is still the case. There appears to be great deal of denial around. Many people are still acting as though COVID-19 is merely a brief interruption and then things will continue much as before. I was at a meeting last week where businessmen were feeding back experience from the sharp end, it wasn’t good, and I could see that the Chair of the meeting appeared ‘shell-shocked’.

Locally, Stratford-on-Avon District has 17,100 people on furlough, the highest number of any Warwickshire District or Borough. High levels of unemployment will be the big issue coming down the track fast.

In dealing with any crisis one of the first things to do is face reality, no matter how bad it looks. I think that the team we have at Stratford District Council have a realistic grasp of what is facing us. In part this is because some of us are old enough to have experienced the 1980’s recession in the workplace with falling output and rising unemployment.  What we are currently facing will be the 1980’s writ large and in part because all the portfolio holders have substantial experience in the commercial world.

The last month has seen us all intensify our lobbying efforts about the state of the District’s finances as a result of the loss of income. This has affected many councils across the country. A fortnight ago I was (virtually) at a conference organised by the Local Government Association attended by many of the councils most heavily impacted. Attendees included Bath, Brighton, Bournemouth, York and Liverpool; the common feature was tourism. Our officers have also been in discussions with the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government spelling out our financial position in very direct terms.

As yet there appears to be no movement. This may be because we understand that the funding shortfall across local government is in the order of £10 billion. However, one message that does appear to have got across is that we are the 4th worst impacted council by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The state of our finances and that of the tourist industry are closely linked. The latest figures for 2018 show we had 6.7 million visitors with a total value of £461.4 million supporting over 8,500 jobs. The growth rate was 12.7% between 2017 and 2018. In other words it is a huge success story. The latest data from VisitBritain clearly shows that we can expect no rapid recovery.  Only 30% of people surveyed expect ‘normality’ by September, this rises to 53% expecting it by December. Outdoor areas and activities are set to be more popular than indoor activities and venues; hence the popularity of the ‘Rec’.

Obviously this hits our Shakespeare attractions hard, the RSC, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare’s Schoolroom will all struggle financially and as a Council we will do everything we can to support their lobbying efforts for financial support. Just to be absolutely clear, all the data indicates that it will be at least 2022 before there will be a substantial recovery. One of our big concerns is that the tourist, hospitality and retail infrastructure degrades over the next two years, further inhibiting recovery.  Remember there are 17,100 people furloughed and it is their livelihoods that are at stake. However, I am confident that the ‘Stratford-upon-Avon’ and ‘Shakespeare’ brands will play a crucial role in enabling our recovery.

Reopening Stratford town centre to provide a safer environment for shoppers, pedestrians and businesses to operate is all part of the recovery process and we have worked closely with Warwickshire County Council and the Town Council to put a new, but temporary road allocation scheme in place within extremely short timescales.

 

Improving the appearance of barriers is high on the agenda and we are hoping to tap into the creativity of local art groups to reflect the distinctive look and feel of our new look town. As hospitality businesses open, the space created may allow them to increase their outside tables to accommodate the social distancing requirements.

 

On a positive note, we have paid out £30.78m to 2,503 businesses on the Business Rate Grant scheme. We now have the princely sum of £1.7 million to distribute through a ‘discretionary’ scheme, although given the constraints imposed on us, I wonder if the people at the centre truly understand the meaning of the word ‘discretionary’.

We have also had the opportunity to bid for capital schemes through the CWLEP, it is an illustration of the speed at which we have to work that we received notice of this opportunity late on Wednesday and the bids will need to be submitted by Monday. It is perhaps unsurprising that given the speed and intensity with which we have to work and the extent of lobbying and influencing we have to do that many of us are weary. This is both officers and portfolio holders. We are aware that the effort needs to be put in now to help secure our future.

Finally, another piece of good news, Julie Lewis has joined the team as Head of Community and Operational Services; she is a most welcome addition to the team and has joined us at a time when we really did need reinforcements.

Cllr Tony Jefferson
Leader, Stratford-on-Avon District Council
June 2020

In my last column I said that I was not sure that many people had understood the implications of the biggest economic downturn in centuries. Despite the continual flow of grim economic news I am afraid that this is still the case. There appears to be great deal of denial around. Many people are still acting as though COVID-19 is merely a brief interruption and then things will continue much as before. I was at a meeting last week where businessmen were feeding back experience from the sharp end, it wasn’t good, and I could see that the Chair of the meeting appeared ‘shell-shocked’.

Locally, Stratford-on-Avon District has 17,100 people on furlough, the highest number of any Warwickshire District or Borough. High levels of unemployment will be the big issue coming down the track fast.

In dealing with any crisis one of the first things to do is face reality, no matter how bad it looks. I think that the team we have at Stratford District Council have a realistic grasp of what is facing us. In part this is because some of us are old enough to have experienced the 1980’s recession in the workplace with falling output and rising unemployment.  What we are currently facing will be the 1980’s writ large and in part because all the portfolio holders have substantial experience in the commercial world.

The last month has seen us all intensify our lobbying efforts about the state of the District’s finances as a result of the loss of income. This has affected many councils across the country. A fortnight ago I was (virtually) at a conference organised by the Local Government Association attended by many of the councils most heavily impacted. Attendees included Bath, Brighton, Bournemouth, York and Liverpool; the common feature was tourism. Our officers have also been in discussions with the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government spelling out our financial position in very direct terms.

As yet there appears to be no movement. This may be because we understand that the funding shortfall across local government is in the order of £10 billion. However, one message that does appear to have got across is that we are the 4th worst impacted council by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The state of our finances and that of the tourist industry are closely linked. The latest figures for 2018 show we had 6.7 million visitors with a total value of £461.4 million supporting over 8,500 jobs. The growth rate was 12.7% between 2017 and 2018. In other words it is a huge success story. The latest data from VisitBritain clearly shows that we can expect no rapid recovery.  Only 30% of people surveyed expect ‘normality’ by September, this rises to 53% expecting it by December. Outdoor areas and activities are set to be more popular than indoor activities and venues; hence the popularity of the ‘Rec’.

Obviously this hits our Shakespeare attractions hard, the RSC, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare’s Schoolroom will all struggle financially and as a Council we will do everything we can to support their lobbying efforts for financial support. Just to be absolutely clear, all the data indicates that it will be at least 2022 before there will be a substantial recovery. One of our big concerns is that the tourist, hospitality and retail infrastructure degrades over the next two years, further inhibiting recovery.  Remember there are 17,100 people furloughed and it is their livelihoods that are at stake. However, I am confident that the ‘Stratford-upon-Avon’ and ‘Shakespeare’ brands will play a crucial role in enabling our recovery.

Reopening Stratford town centre to provide a safer environment for shoppers, pedestrians and businesses to operate is all part of the recovery process and we have worked closely with Warwickshire County Council and the Town Council to put a new, but temporary road allocation scheme in place within extremely short timescales.

 

Improving the appearance of barriers is high on the agenda and we are hoping to tap into the creativity of local art groups to reflect the distinctive look and feel of our new look town. As hospitality businesses open, the space created may allow them to increase their outside tables to accommodate the social distancing requirements.

 

On a positive note, we have paid out £30.78m to 2,503 businesses on the Business Rate Grant scheme. We now have the princely sum of £1.7 million to distribute through a ‘discretionary’ scheme, although given the constraints imposed on us, I wonder if the people at the centre truly understand the meaning of the word ‘discretionary’.

We have also had the opportunity to bid for capital schemes through the CWLEP, it is an illustration of the speed at which we have to work that we received notice of this opportunity late on Wednesday and the bids will need to be submitted by Monday. It is perhaps unsurprising that given the speed and intensity with which we have to work and the extent of lobbying and influencing we have to do that many of us are weary. This is both officers and portfolio holders. We are aware that the effort needs to be put in now to help secure our future.

Finally, another piece of good news, Julie Lewis has joined the team as Head of Community and Operational Services; she is a most welcome addition to the team and has joined us at a time when we really did need reinforcements.

Cllr Tony Jefferson
Leader, Stratford-on-Avon District Council
June 2020