From the 19th floor of Westminster City Council’s head office, you will find our office canteen – normally bright, bustling, with people taking their trays to sit down and eat with a panoramic view of Victoria and beyond.
Those streets are now eerily quiet, and the noisy clamour of canteen chat and coffee machines has given way to a new noise – of kitchen staff and volunteers working flat out to produce meals for the homeless.
The normal breakfast and lunch service has given way to an assembly line producing two meals a day for 900 people. They are being made by the team from our catering contractors Unity Works, a social enterprise company which gives a start to people with learning and other difficulties. Under the watchful eye of head chef Brian Fantoni, his five team mates – Dan, Olivean, Michael, Terry and café apprentice Dan Berton – work at full speed to prepare food which is boxed up on tables in the normal catering area by a team of volunteers. Today’s menu - cheese and onion slice with couscous, fruit juice, croissant, and a piece of fruit.
Talking to this whole team, I am again humbled by the amazing groundswell of community support we have seen in Westminster since the coronavirus epidemic hit. More than 2,000 people have now offered to help the council through our umbrella volunteering coordination organisation that we have established, Westminster Connects.
Here in the office canteen, volunteers are ensuring that meals are getting to rough sleepers and others made homeless through either mental health issues or young people who have fled chaotic backgrounds. Rough sleeping is so difficult at any time, but coronavirus has meant we have to find shelter immediately for the individuals who might otherwise gather in shop doorways or parks. Isolating at home is clearly not a usual option for rough sleepers.
Westminster has always had a significant rough sleeping population – on any given night there were typically around 300 people sleeping out. Our council rough sleeping team have spent the last eight days securing hotel bedrooms – the majority in Westminster, but some in a nearby borough – to ensure rough sleepers have somewhere to stay. So far we have 297 hotel rooms and we continue to search for more accommodation. It is to these hotels that the food parcels of Unity will find their way. In the north of our borough we have also just opened a hub which will send out food parcels to 180 ‘shielding’ residents. Again, a mix of council officers and volunteers will work seven days a week to make this facility work.
Big business is also pitching in. McDonalds is offering fresh food from all its Westminster outlets - lettuce, tomatoes and milk – which will be used in the meals for the homeless and by the foodbanks. The Hilton London Metropole is delivering food to the North Paddington Foodbank. London black cab drivers are ferrying rough sleepers to hotel places. The New West End Company, representing 600 major retailers, is asking its members to loan parking spaces for key workers and donate personal protection equipment like face masks, gloves, overshoes and aprons. The Duke of Westminster has made a £2m donation to help vulnerable people. We know there are many more acts such as this taking place all across our City and the country.
And we are doing our best to look after businesses in return. While the health of our residents is the overriding priority, there will come a point when, in future months, we need to revive our economy for when our usual influx of one million people a day pass through Westminster’s streets. The thousands of businesses based in our part of central London collectively generate £53 billion a year – three per cent of the country’s economic output – and we need that economic powerhouse to fire up again to safeguard jobs. I will continue to lobby the Chancellor to ensure businesses get any help they need and welcome the huge support the Government has already announced and we will do all we can to help.
But for now, like all other local authorities, normal life is suspended but our councillors and staff continue to work closely, although remotely, together to look after the strategic interests of the city and deliver essential services. Our flexible staff have also been volunteering to be redeployed to different areas to make the authority run and ensure the vulnerable remain well cared for. We appreciate that as an authority we are by no means unique. There is great collaboration across London local government and I see local authorities leading the way across the country on our daily news and updates. I pay tribute to all councillors and officers for their hard work in these difficult times and their commitment to public service.
Our council programme is called City for All. The huge outpouring of community spirit I have seen in the past days shows those words have real meaning, and will take us through the current emergency to the promise of a recovery to come.
Cllr Rachael Robathan is leader of Westminster City Council