Cllr Louie French is the Deputy Leader of Bexley Council. He was the Conservative candidate for Eltham in the 2019 General Election.
As we leave the nightmare year that was 2020, we must learn lessons from the pandemic. Understandably, the immediate focus of policymakers and people across the country are on how we contain the latest spike in cases, protect the most vulnerable in our society, and ensure that the NHS has the capacity to treat patients. Improvements in the evidence base and testing should help inform decision-making, alongside the rapid rollout of vaccinations.
However, we must not lose sight of the negative externalities and wider impact of Covid related restrictions, particularly as we look to the future and what we want our country to look like post Brexit and the virus.
For many of us, a safe return to our local pub, bar, sports or social club will be high on our Christmas wish list given the limitations of interacting socially online. Try to picture the scene in springtime. The government, NHS and scientists have successfully vaccinated the most vulnerable members of society, infection rates and restrictions are much lower, the economy is rebounding strongly and the sunnier days are encouraging more people to return to their local. Perhaps for a glass of English wine with old friends, Sunday lunch with family or a post-match drink with teammates ahead of a sizzling summer of sporting events.
But for this to become a reality, we need to act now to ensure they survive the winter and people have jobs to return to once furlough ends.
Whilst the majority of businesses have faced significant headwinds in 2020 and calls for help are likely to grow in January, few sectors have been hit as hard as hospitality and leisure, especially local pubs and clubs throughout the year. With the first round of government support grants and greater flexibility for use of outdoor spaces, many businesses spent thousands to make their premises as Covid-secure as possible for re-opening. They then adapted their business models as local restrictions changed, were asked to close in November, and after a short period of stocking up on scotch eggs and serving substantial meals in December, were asked to close their doors again at one of the busiest trading times of the year.
Despite additional funding of £1,000 for wet led pubs and support grants for businesses required to close, industry analysis estimates that an average sized pub is losing approximately £600 each week while closed. Evidently, an unsustainable situation for many indebted business owners.
In Bexley, we have listened very carefully to our local business networks and conducted our own economic analysis of where extra support is urgently needed and could be targeted beyond the existing national grant schemes this winter. Unsurprisingly, the hospitality industry, particularly pubs and clubs that make most of their revenues behind the bar and through events, were high on the risk of closures and the subsequent negative impacts on our communities and local economy.
Consequently, we took the decision that we needed to act, and as part of the additional restrictions grant funding provided to local councils by the government to support a range of businesses, we have used our discretion to launch a special winter support scheme of approximately £1 million for local independent pubs, bars and licensed sports and social clubs to apply.
The top-up grants range between £6,000 and £14,000 (depending on the size of the business) and we expect to help over a hundred pubs, bars and clubs. These include local cricket, football, rugby and tennis clubs across Bexley, which highlights that this support scheme is about much more than a drinking culture.
Pubs and a variety of clubs now offer vital community spaces, which are often family-friendly and even before Covid, were providing environments to help with issues such as isolation and loneliness. For example, a number of local pubs traditionally open on Christmas Day to prevent people being alone, and in our part of the country, we have witnessed the organic growth of micropubs that are designed to promote conversations between customers. As a councillor, it is also not uncommon for residents and groups to request a meeting in one of these venues, which can be lively at times, and I witnessed first-hand the incredible community work some pubs undertook during the first lockdown such as providing freshly cooked meals for local hospitals.
Hopefully, this additional funding will help these much-loved community assets survive the winter and thrive again in the future when restrictions are relaxed. By sharing this story and highlighting that action can be taken now without requiring any changes in government policy, I also hope that others will be encouraged to support their local pubs and clubs this winter.
Whilst most businesses just want the freedom to open, and the debates will continue over the effectiveness of the tier system and lockdowns, it is clear that with more businesses closed under the Tier 3 and 4 restrictions, additional support will be required to help keep the lights on this winter. From an economic perspective, I believe that the government would be well advised to channel any additional funding via these council-led schemes so that they can use their local knowledge to better target business support, reduce fraud risks, make payments efficiently, and in this case, back British Pubs and Clubs.