853 exclusive: Greenwich borough residents are being encouraged to get out and spend locally as the council begins planning for a potential recession.
Council leader Danny Thorpe has warned that the borough is planning for the risk of a post-lockdown crash – with the council itself already facing a budget gap due to Covid-19.
His warning came as Boris Johnson outlined new, relaxed restrictions that will come into force from July 4, nudging England back to normal. As pubs, bars and restaurants prepare to take advantage of the new one-metre-plus rule, Thorpe gave his backing to pedestrianising streets to allow more outside space for the hospitality sector.
Thorpe told 853 that the council’s key message as lockdown restrictions are eased is for residents to stay in the borough and support local trade.
He said: “The big borough-wide risk for us is clearly planning for recession. That’s where my head is at at the moment. We know that there are 31,400 people who are furloughed and living in Greenwich. We definitely know that eventually when the furlough period ends there are likely to be many people making redundancies – that is a huge rise.
“Every single economic forecast shows every sector of the economy is expected to retract. Although I’ve been pleased to see the numbers out shopping – at the O2 we had 700 down at the Icon [outlet centre] on the first day – there’s a concern over whether those people will support the wider sectors.
“I think people are still very much at home in general, although people have said there are more cars on the roads and that may be true but it’s certainly nowhere near the pre-virus levels. So what we really want to make sure is our key message is go out, support local and stay local.
“People can do a good moral thing and support local businesses that have been affected by the pandemic.”
Praising the council-backed tourism agency, he said: “There’s already been some great work is being done by Visit Greenwich. I’ve found new parts of the borough on my lockdown runs and I hope people feel the same and go and find wider parts of the borough.”
With the two-metre rule eased to help pubs and restaurants reopen, councils are investigating ways to pedestrianise areas so customers can move outside, opening up more space between tables.
Thorpe, who was at one time the council’s cabinet member for regeneration, said that Greenwich would back similar schemes if they can be done safely.
He said: “I think we are going to be mandated to do that – yesterday we were looking at 45 licensed premises and what that would mean in terms of the space outside. Some pubs are on residential streets for example, so it won’t be as easy as we think, but absolutely where we can achieve pedestrianisation and if people act responsibly we would support this.
“We can have a little taste of the continent in Greenwich – at least until it starts raining again. It’s clearly the way Westminster and others are going and that’s something we will support.”
Inside Woolwich Town Hall thought is also being given to how the council will pay for the increased pressure the coronavirus has brought local authorities.
Thorpe said: “The latest information we have is that there will be additional support coming – but we aren’t sure when that will come or how much it will be. Our Covid costs have very definitely exceeded the income we have.
“We know based on the projected costs there is a huge gaps in that funding – unless the government are much clearer and much quicker in delivering against their pledge to stick to local councils we are going to face a significant and real ongoing pressure we will have to deal with. We have had people cancel their council tax direct debits and business rates are down – you realise the outlook is very bleak.”
Greenwich Council’s new cabinet member for finance, Chris Kirby, said last week that 3,200 people have cancelled their direct debit for council tax, and business rate collections are down seven per cent – the equivalent of more than £2m.
The borough is also set to miss out on £10m in fees and charges, which it usually makes from services such as car parks and planning applications.
Away from the economic challenges, however, Greenwich’s leader was quick to praise the community effort that saw the borough quickly utilise its voluntary sector at the start of lockdown.
He said: “We didn’t really do anything with the Government’s volunteering scheme. The local work we did was absolutely vital. We had over 80,000 calls to the community hub and we couldn’t do that without the volunteer help. The key problem is that the government are trying to over-centralise things – bringing in Serco [for test and trace] when we have key people on the ground is such a missed opportunity.”
Thorpe also encouraged residents to use the NHS test and trace system as the capital, and the rest of the country, begins to return to normal.
He said: “Clearly, until there’s a vaccine and everyone is vaccinated then the risk is ongoing, but we have seen a significant decline in cases in London. I think we have four people left in the intensive care unit across the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust who are positive – we are still seeing infections occur on a very small basis.
“I guess people should feel confident about going out because the virus is declining, obviously with the right protections.
“As of yesterday, and since the start of the programme on May 28, we had 47 cases referred through the test and trace system.
“The team have identified 67 close contacts and followed up 23 successfully. There are still some concerns about how test and trace is going, but the key point is that the system is up and running and is there for everyone to subscribe to. We need people to do it immediately.”
TOM BULL is a freelance journalist and former local democracy reporter in SE London.
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