Tony Jefferson: Rebellion in the shires over the economic damage of continued lockdowns

28 Dec

Cllr Tony Jefferson is the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council

Stratford-on-Avon is a rural district and, by area, it is 48 per cent of Warwickshire. Rural areas have, unsurprisingly, a lower prevalence of Covid-19 than urban areas. We have consistently had the lowest metrics against the indicators of all areas in Warwickshire.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the local economy. Early on in the outbreak Stratford-on-Avon was estimated to be the local government area where it would have the fourth worst impact. More recently it has been estimated that we are the most adversely impacted in the West Midlands. Our two biggest industries are the motor industry and tourism. Tourism drives hospitality and retail. We are therefore very sensitive to the decisions on tiers. Indeed, it is obvious from the correspondence and questions I get that many people monitor the situation closely, are fully aware of the metrics, and can compare our metrics with those of other areas.

Our residents can see the economic damage being done every time they walk down Bridge Street and High Street. The number of empty shops continues to grow. Family members, friends, and neighbours are furloughed from restaurants and pubs. The RSC has its theatres closed. Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was able to open only one of its four properties. At one stage when I added together the number of unemployed, the number on furlough, and the number receiving Self-Employed Income Support the total came to 43 per cent of the working population of the District.

Until the announcement of the mutant strain of Covid-19 people were becoming far more concerned about the economic damage than the health impact. Although, the mental health issues caused by the length of the pandemic are an increasing factor in people’s disquiet.

This is why, when the decisions on tiers were made on 26th November and we were placed in Tier 3, we were less than happy. When the following day there was a chart in the Financial Times showing the metrics for Stratford-on-Avon were at the bottom of the areas in Tier 3 and below about 75 per cent of those in Tier 2 the credibility of the decision was suspect. So we decided to send a Judicial Review pre-action protocol letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (the DHSC). This was not a decision taken lightly but was fully and unanimously supported by our Cabinet.

Subsequent comments I received indicate there was real anger locally about being in Tier 3. The level of anger came as a surprise but reinforced the view that people are becoming more concerned about the economic impact. This was compounded and intensified when it was realised that we had been lumped in with Coventry and Solihull.

The local reaction to taking action against the government has been running more than 10 in favour for every one against. People have been coming up me in the street (as close as social distancing will allow) to congratulate me on taking the action we did.

I would draw three obvious conclusions from this experience:

  • It is important to make decisions based on areas people can identify with, rather than areas based on administrative convenience. The more local the better.
  • Decisions that directly impact people will be very closely scrutinised and need to be capable of withstanding analysis by intelligent and capable people.
  • Peoples views of what is important change over time and as a result of experience.

It is gratifying that in the latest round of decisions on tiers, lower-tier local government areas have been considered separately. Disappointingly, all our metrics have gone up so we have not yet benefitted. The message has, however, got through.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the District Council finances. It has cost us about £7.5 million. We are now left with a funding gap of about £4 million per annum out of a net budget of about £16 million. We have a substantial amount of commercial income from things like car parks. This has taken a very big hit. We are currently working up our five-year Medium Term Financial Strategy and, by exhausting our reserves we can get through the next 5 years. However, what this means is that many of the things we want to do to enable place-shaping and underpin economic development and recovery have been squeezed out. This is far from ideal. We have, under the current government constraints, very limited room to increase the Council Tax. Much as I don’t like the idea of increasing Council Tax if it is a choice between doing that and constraining investing in economic development and the recovery then that is a choice I would make.

On a very positive note, the response of councillors, especially my fellow cabinet members and officers, has been superb. Flexible, responsive, and always willing to go the extra mile.

Stratford on Avon has always been a prosperous district; over the next two years at least our local economy will be hit very hard. I never thought that we may need to be part of the “levelling up” agenda.

2020 was the year everything changed.