Louie French: We need to ensure our pubs and clubs survive the winter

5 Jan

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.

David Leaf: In Bexley, we will keep on delivering top rated services – while Labour resorts to scaremongering

30 Nov

Cllr David Leaf is the Cabinet Member for Resources on Bexley Council.

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas, as its always at this time of the year that Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters, claim everything is a disaster and that the Council is about to go into bankruptcy.

They’ve actually now been making this claim every year since 2013. Then, they stated that if we were re-elected, the council would either go bankrupt or Council Tax would rise by 40 per cent – none of which happened.

Seven years since they first made that claim, we continue to be rated as an efficient effective Council which delivers value for money for our residents, and our budget plans for 2021/22 are almost completed, four months before they need to be, and our budget will be in balance. Our services continue to be among the best-rated services in local government, and the fruits of investments, such as investing in new street cleaning machinery (which Labour voted against doing), see services improving or being modernised.

Our manifesto pledges from 2018 have all been delivered, and satisfaction from the residents we serve with council services remains high. Roads are being repaired, children’s social care services are helping those in need, vulnerable adults continue to receive care, we remain number one for recycling as we have been for the last 15 years. We’ve also secured funding to build two new schools for children with special needs.

And we’re also delivering new facilities for residents – a new BMX bike park in Barnehurst, a new park, playground, and wildlife area in Sidcup and a new library is being built in Thamesmead. We also lobbied for and now have two Covid testing centres, are working with colleagues on Dartford to reduce infection rates, and are working hard to create centres for vaccinations.

By contrast, in the last month alone, Labour-run Croydon has actually gone bankrupt with a £50 million plus budget gap, Labour-run Transport for London has gone bankrupt for the second time and had to be bailed out by the Conservative Government for the second time. We see Labour-run Lewisham with a £24 million budget gap, Ealing with a £28 million budget gap, Brent with a £29 million one, and Greenwich with a £60 million budget gap over next four years.

No wonder Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters want to distract from that shambolic record by real life Labour administrations by trotting out these usual fictions about Bexley, alongside criticising every budget proposal while never actually putting forward any ideas or solutions of their own – the same pattern as usual of course.

What’s shocking this year is that Labour councillors who should know better are frightening the life out of council staff by making all sorts of claims about how they will all lose their jobs; our staff work really hard and to see Labour councillors almost salivating at potential job losses is sickening. Staff I speak to have been really upset by these statements, when what is needed is a calm approach.

Yes, there will be changes to the way the Council is run, or how services are provided.

This is a difficult time for local government, the impact of Covid has been felt across the sector, and across all services. Here in Bexley, much of our income from fees and charges vanished overnight – eg parking income which helps fund highways maintenance and school road safety projects disappeared overnight. There are some Labour supporters who think generating income for services like school road safety projects through parking income is wrong, but of course, as said above, they oppose generating income to help save lives without actually coming up with how to fund it instead.

Like all councils, we have had huge costs appear out of the blue – for example, from scratch we set up a food delivery network, getting hot food to vulnerable residents during the lockdown, making sure those on their own and in need of help got the support they needed. Some 3,000 meals were being delivered, and we had a team of people collecting medicines and prescriptions for those unable to leave their homes. It has cost the council millions of pounds overnight, money that is gradually being recouped from Central Government.

The test of any Council is how they find a way through sudden and unexpected events like this.

One approach is to go into panic mode, hide away and hope everything will be fine (a la Croydon) or lead from the front, make decisions quickly and calmly, work hard all the time to ensure services continue to be delivered, even if in different ways for a while. That is what we were elected to do, and what we have always done.

Yes, there are some difficult choices to make, but as Bexley residents have shown over four elections by electing us with decisive mandates, they trust us to lead the Borough, make difficult decisions when they need to be made, and ensure that we are planning for the long term while making sure services continue to be delivered. The consequences of not doing that can be seen in Croydon, Brent, Lewisham, Greenwich, and at Transport for London.

Amy Selman: How to be a campaigner and a governor – lessons from Johnson’s time as London’s mayor

16 Nov

Amy Selman was policy adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London from 2010-2016.

Much was written about the personalities of the key players within Downing Street this week – and the consequent drama and intrigue captures the interest of the Westminster classes.

Less headline-grabbing are the methods of working which may also need a refresh in order to reassure Conservative MPs that the Prime Minister’s team is working for one of their ultimate goals – re-election in their constituencies.

It is too glib to say that campaigners can’t deliver in government. MPs know this because of the impressive record of many of their local council leaders, who tend to stay in office for longer, and run successful re-election campaigns.

In London as Mayor, Boris Johnson snapped up key local leaders, from Stephen Greenhalgh, Mike Freer and Theresa O’Neill (then leaders of Hammersmith & Fulham, Barnet and Bexley councils respectively), to replicate at the city level what they had done for their boroughs.

This team, managed first by Simon Milton as Chief of Staff, and then by Edward Lister, helped the Mayor run a united team of both civil servants and politicians. Some observations:

Gearing everything towards delivery – publish a traffic light system

The first is that the machinery of government can and wants to work for you, and the best way to consolidate that is through your manifesto.

Leaders are elected on a platform, and the civil service’s duty is to help execute it. A focus on delivering policies that voters chose is key to getting the machinery working. At City Hall, this was done by a diligent senior team who produced a monthly traffic light scoresheet for each 2012 manifesto commitment, and brought those in charge of implementing it to an Investment and Performance Board, with minutes that were almost wholly public.

This meant some difficult conversations both with heads of such agencies as Transport for London, and with the Deputy Mayors appointed to oversee them, but the process both integrated the teams and served as red flags when commitments were under threat.

The traffic light system was not always the favourite part of people’s work – more exciting, glamorous comms opportunities would capture daily headlines  – but the Chief of Staff and Permanent Secretary ensured that this core business had to be met first.

Adapt delivery for campaigning materials – so providing a record

The Board papers allowed the political team to extrapolate for London’s Conservative MPs achievements they could use in campaigning materials, such as those that CCHQ provided borough versions of newsletters.

Conservative MPs need regular red meat – material they can use to campaign on a record. Progress on manifesto commitments are the way to provide that, regardless of daily stories that blow hot and cold. Donors, too, want to see a scorecard that can reassuree them that core policies are being worked on.

Brand your successes.

Johnson’s team also instigated the appropriate branding for schemes – such as, at the insistence of Richard Blakeway, one of the Deputy Mayors, that all new part-funded Homes for London were attributed to the Mayor’s office as well as the private housebuilder.

There is a current debate about this practice in relation to UK Government schemes in Scotland.  It should be settled immediately: if taxpayer money is being spent in any part of the UK, the brand of Her Majesty’s Government must be displayed.

Adapt set pieces with bitesize briefings for MPs to use

Set pieces such as the Budget are another amalgamation of campaigning and governing. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne was a master of this fusion, and would pass on long shopping lists from London to civil servant teams, which would then whittle it down to list concrete commitments.

One example is the Long-Term Economic Plan for London of 2015, which adapted the work of the independent London Finance Commission – triangulating between Whitehall, local enterprise partnerships and other regional demands that the then Government was facing to ensure a fair share of investment.

Bitesize briefings based on the LTEP ensured that the huge sums pledged by the Treasury could be translated into local schemes and MP campaigning wins – such as nine new housing zones and two new tube stations. Mayors and regional MP leaders have a huge role to play in similar processes, and should feel that they are working with others as one team all along.

Create a network of insiders at all Party ranks

As Mayor, one of Johnson’s most frequent requests was: ‘what’s happening?’

These were not idle queries” rather, he created a network of allies to help respond to whatever target audiences were talking about: advisers and senior civil servants on forensic London issues; Tory MPs on constituent postbag audits (along with the gossip from dining clubs and the terrace), local council activists on doorstep concerns.

Remember who put you there – so get out and about.

Machiavelli wrote that “he who becomes a prince through the favour of the people should always keep on good terms with them”.  Jonathan Powell’s twentieth century addition was “and if his popularity goes down, his party becomes restless”.

For a mayor known only by his first name, the key to keeping on good terms was to get out and about. In a non-Covid-19 world, I’m sure that we would have seen a Prime Minister Johnson out and about in high streets across the country.

The rotating local London People’s Question Times, as with David Cameron’s Cameron Directs, created a discipline of looking at how wider policies were improving specific areas.

Instead of talking about body-worn cameras or free school places in the abstract, we would have to produce the figures for a borough and explain the exact nature of their benefits.

This helped local campaigners, along with such activities as the boost of a star-power walk, opening of one of London’s 100 new Pocket Parks or regeneration flagships such as Battersea Power station. There was never any tension at the dual nature of these events, with political visits coupled to official events -and Ministers are itching to get back to this even in a virtual world.

Respect the Grid, but don’t expect it to deliver key messages to target audiences

City Hall straddles – without fully controlling – policy areas, agencies and delivery bodies. Whitehall of course has this writ far larger. So the temptation to try and centralise announcements is natural: but in London, it rarely worked seamlessly, and with the audiences the Mayor wanted.

The grid is really a tool for journalists and Westminster, not for voters. It is important, especially if a key audience is the Tory backbenches, who need a Minister for The Today Programme, Newsnight and social media. To get to the voters, a string of random announcements on a topic such as transport should be consolidated into key messages repeated – which meansresisting the need to feed the news cycle beast.

Use the authentic voice – no-one writes to connect like Johnson

The style and reach of Johnson’s Monday Daily Telegraph column did more to focus on priorities than set speeches in warehouses or hard-hatted engineering visits.

Not that it was always disciplined: we would often reassure Numbers 10 and 11 on a Sunday that he would publicly support a new NHS or tax initiative…only for Monday morning’s paper to be a musing on ski holidays or working habits

But the Mayor’s authentic voice though cut through to core voters. And it became clear that when other Ministers wrote diary columns – in the Spectator for the Tory faithful, or in Grazia for new audiences – these would get far more discussion than press release columns.

After a difficult period that no post-war Prime Minister has had to grapple with, a refocus on what the Conservative Party promised voters in 2019, and how each constituency will feel the benefits, would help the Government to regroup. Time to return both governing and the campaign to Tory ground.

Peter Craske: Community pride in Bexley is stronger than ever

28 Aug

Cllr Peter Craske is the Cabinet Member for Places on Bexley Council.

This has been a hard time for everyone, but in Bexley one of the most positive things has been seeing our community come together, even more than we usually do. In the first week of lockdown, our volunteer bureau asked for help, and within a few days over 600 residents signed up.

I was one of them, and I spent two months as part of a group of people delivering hot food to vulnerable residents across the Borough.

For those residents, living alone but used to seeing lots of friends or family regularly, or just being able to say hello to their neighbours, this has been a very difficult time, suddenly faced with being on their own all the time.

Our daily visits became of huge importance for them, someone to talk to for one thing, but also it gave them comfort that, even if no-one else could drop food or goods over, they would get a hot meal everyday. If they needed anything, whether that was essential supplies or medicines collected, we could report that back to the central hub and it would be dropped round. That Hub was also supported by another group of volunteers as well as brilliant Council staff who played a key role in getting essential supplies and food to those who needed it.

For a Conservative borough, like Bexley, community spirit has always been the bedrock of what makes our borough tick, and every day thousands of people volunteer in all sorts of ways, from running charities to organising Scout or Brownie packs. It is just that this crisis has really brought this to the forefront, and we have lots of new volunteers helping out.

One example has been the reaction to the frankly upsetting amounts of litter that has been dropped in parks, even though there are plenty of bins to use. It has been an issue across the country of course – think of the scenes at Bournemouth Beach – but here, while a few people moaned about it on social media while, of course, never actually doing anything to help, we’ve set up a new Parks Volunteer Service, and in the first week of it being launched, 130 residents signed up, to help pick up litter.

They were astonished at the sheer volumes of litter a small minority of people were dropping and even though our parks have plenty of bins and we doubled the number of crews emptying them and picking up litter from the ground, they could see that despite our commitment it was proving an immense challenge – and they wanted to help.

This is both fantastic and unsurprising.

When we set up our Community Litter Picking scheme three years ago, we were unsure how it would go, but we now have over 350 people taking part and making a difference.

Pride in our Borough and standing together as a community has always been a fundamental part of what makes Bexley such a great place, and one of the reasons why 75 per cent of residents recommend it to others as a place to live.

Naturally not everyone agrees with this. Bexley’s Labour Councillors, fresh from a fourth landslide defeat, and who believe it is the role of the state to do everything all the time, opposed the creation of these types of schemes. At a recent Council meeting, one Labour councillor actually condemned volunteering projects like this as a “cheapskate charter.”

But, as with everything else they do, Labour’s sneering attitude remains firmly in the minority.

The real spirit of our Borough, which is encapsulated in our “Do it For Bexley” message, is seen by everyone who rolls up their sleeves, getting on with life, making the community better for everyone.