Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our communities in Waltham Forest have shown abundant resilience and support for each other in a time of great upheaval. This has included 4,000 volunteers helping us deliver over 5,400 food and medicine parcels to raising nearly £40,000 from a crowdfunding appeal that has helped our food banks meet the growing demand created by the pandemic.
It is now critical we harness this spirited response to get our local economy back open and ensure a stable future for our residents and businesses. The consequences of COVID-19 will be severe and local authorities will have a vital role to play in ensuring people’s future prosperity as we kick start the economy after the biggest peacetime shutdown of our financial system in history.
Like other councils up and down the country, we have administered £41m to more than 3,000 businesses - including nearly £1m in Discretionary Grants - and officers are working hard to get businesses back open, ensuring they understand and comply with the ever-increasing amount of government guidance and rules to keep their staff and customers safe.
We know there will be more challenges ahead. Currently 40 per cent of our working age population is being paid by the Government, either through Universal Credit, furlough, or other COVID-19 support packages.
There is now an opportunity to think about how we kick-start local economic growth. Our focus must be on maximising the local benefit from any investment into the borough and stepping in when business struggles. This is an important function of government and one that is as true on a local level as it is on national one.
What is clear is that the inevitable recession will not be an even one and what local authorities do now will shape how and when we come out at the other end.
There are opportunities brought by the effects of the pandemic. As an outer London borough, with a third of our working residents previously commuting to into the city, working from home has become and will continue to be more commonplace. This can bring natural benefits as people choose to use their spending power locally and it means we are a more attractive employer to work for. Local authorities have a huge opportunity to build on these and other changes and harness the collective goals of our networks and stakeholders to promote the importance of supporting local businesses.
Our Economic Recovery Action Plan is built around three key phases of activity. We have successfully completed the first phase, reopening the borough and supporting businesses and high streets to do so safely. The second challenge is to harness the spirit and tenacity of our people and businesses and celebrate all that makes Waltham Forest unique.
We want our new economy to be locally self-sustaining and self-supporting, with our people and businesses coming together to drive economic success. We can use our power as a landlord and an investor to ensure this. Our social value policy must successfully balance our social, environmental and economic agendas and we must do this by investing in both the built environment and in our residents’ skills. The third phase of our plans will set out the measures we intend to take over the next year and beyond as we build our way to a better future for people and businesses.
Around 1,800 businesses support 18,000 jobs in our town centres, and the recovery of our town centres will be key to the economic recovery. We have just recommitted to a £25m investment in purchasing and refurbishing the iconic EMD Granada Cinema in the heart of Walthamstow, a venue that has hosted the likes of The Beatles and Johnny Cash, which will be transformed into the largest comedy venue in outer London in partnership with Soho Theatres. This thousand-seater venue will bring investment, entertainment and jobs to the borough, a legacy of our year as the Mayor’s first-ever London Borough of Culture. We know improving and diversifying our cultural offer brings benefits to all sorts of businesses and helps residents feel a sense of identity and pride in their area.
But we need to move at pace to seize opportunities and ensure business and developers aren’t held back. Technological innovations such as the UK’s first Virtual Planning Committee that took place at the height of the crisis have enabled us to continue to make these important decisions. We have approved 750 homes for The Score development in Leyton, which will create almost 600 jobs, at the same time as we are discharging scores of people from hospital and delivering thousands of food parcels. The ability to continue planning throughout the crisis has protected jobs and the livelihoods of our residents as we come out of full lockdown.
Our ambitious housing programme will not fall by the wayside and is unaffected by COVID-19. There are 18,000 homes identified for delivery in the Local Plan, for which we are exploring new technologies to accelerate delivery. We will use our position as a landlord and landowner to provide support where the private sector fails and ensure job opportunities for local people are created through the supply chain. Our capital investment programme is worth over half a billion pounds and includes plans to deliver a world-class hospital at Whipps Cross with 1,500 high-quality new homes.
With unemployment set to rise to levels not seen in 30 years, we have established a Rapid Employment Service that will support residents affected by COVID- 19 by linking them with local businesses. This will help those who have recently lost their jobs, are at risk of being made redundant, or are self-employed and struggling, while our Adult Learning Service will continue to train and boost the skills and confidence of residents.
Recovery will also be aided by re-imagining our vacant shops and public buildings, with pop-up space for local businesses, cultural, and arts use created alongside new and affordable homes. Working with transport providers such as Transport for London and Network Rail to attract the necessary investment to upgrade our train and bus stations will make our town centres and key shopping areas more accessible and attractive for residents and visitors.
Now is the time to put business and jobs at the forefront of our thinking as we support our residents through this uncertain period. The pandemic has brought out the best in local authorities as we change the way we work to adapt to the needs of residents. We now must build on the relationships and trust that has been created to build and maintain thriving local economies.
Martin Esom is chief executive of Waltham Forest LBC