Preston and Chorley leaders lay out 'long road' to pandemic recovery - and the challenges on the way
Two Central Lancashire council leaders have warned that the region needs to lay strong foundations for the anticipated return to some degree of normality, as part of the government’s plan to lift lockdown restrictions in the coming months.
Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown and Chorley Council’s Alistair Bradley have called for action which recognises the scars and challenges that will be left behind by the pandemic, even once the vaccination programme hopefully sends the virus into retreat.
The government unveiled its four-step roadmap to exiting lockdown on Monday, which includes currently-closed businesses gradually being able to open back up - provided the country meets a series of tests demonstrating that it is heading in the right direction in getting Covid under control.
However, Cllr Bradley says that the route back to normal life will not only need to resolve the health challenge posed by Covid, but also deal with the disruption caused to almost every aspect of life for the last year.
“Nothing is guaranteed, but it looks like we’ve got an end point in sight when it comes to the medical issues - but I think the business and community issues will go on for a lot longer.
“Many businesses have got months more of lockdown [to come] and they are already down to the wire - and then they are all going to be trying to kickstart things at the same time.
“There are particular challenges with credit. If you have a pub, for example, and you need to order £10,000 worth of beer, but you’ve got no money in the bank - well, you’ll be competing with everybody else and all your suppliers will want paying up front.
“So we need a platform from the government - it’s all very well saying: 'You're back to normal'. But these businesses will not have been normal for 18 months by the summer,” Cllr Bradley said.
He hopes that short-term support to see them through to the end of lockdown will be announced at next week’s budget - but is calling for the government also to seize the opportunity presented by the post-pandemic recovery for places like Lancashire and recognise the need to “do things differently - because things are different”.
The Post understands that a call took place earlier this week between Lancashire council leaders and the ministerial taskforce set up for the county back in the autumn, as part of negotiations when Lancashire entered Tier 3 restrictions.
It is understood that ongoing discussions about support for the county as the virus recedes have been positive, but have not yet yielded any firm agreements.
Cllr Bradley says that, whatever plans are brought forward to help local areas endure what remains of - and recover from - the current lockdown, it is district councils that are best placed to deliver them, because they “know their own communities best”.
He also warned that individuals must not be forgotten amidst efforts to help businesses get back on their feet.
“Some people have stayed indoors for a year - and while many will be able to restart their lives exactly as they were, there are others who aren’t in position to do that and we need to remember them and provide support.
“That’s where councils and partner organisations are going to be very important in terms of community cohesion and getting the community dynamic back to normal,” he added.
Cllr Brown shares the belief that the Covid recovery must be about more than the economy.
“People think once restrictions are lifted, it’s going to be back to normal, but it’s not.
“There are going to be challenges in relation to long Covid and also complex grief. We mustn't forget that individuals and communities will be grieving.
“We have got to have a conversation about how we [address] both of those issues,” said Cllr Brown, who floated the idea of the NHS delivering targeted support services from within vacant retail premises in the city centre.
He also said that in addressing the undoubted economic challenges that will face Preston, the city needs to make the most of the built-in resilience offered by some of its biggest players.
“What we have in Preston - and which isn’t going to get up and leave - is our not-for-profit anchor institutions.
“So it’s important that the councils, the hospital, our university and further education colleges and [social housing provider] Community Gateway do as much as they can to support residents and the local business base post-Covid," Cllr Brown said.
Citing the example of 90 jobs which were created at a Preston-based company when the NHS sourced masks from them last year, he added:
“[These institutions] need to think entrepreneurially and strategically about how they can benefit the local economy. [By considering] where they buy their goods and services, who they employ and what they do with their land and assets, they can really lift people up.
“There has got to be an effort to address poverty and inequality,” Cllr Brown said.
As part of that strategy, he says that he - along with neighbouring City Deal partner South Ribble Borough Council - will be making the case for a new generation of social housing to support the often low-paid workers “who have got us through the pandemic”.
However, before the focus can turn fully to the future, the city’s leader says that the immediate health threat which continues to be posed by Covid needs to be finally dealt with.
Preston has had the highest, though still declining, Covid case rate in Lancashire in recent weeks - and Cllr Brown recently called for the city to be prioritised for vaccinations, because of the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on the low-income and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) sections of the community.
He also fears that falling infection rates could be jeopardised by the complete reopening of schools on 8th March.
“I was calling for a rota system and blended learning [between home and school] back in the autumn, before the November lockdown - and I do think that the return to school next month should have been staggered, as it has been in Scotland and Wales.
“I don't think we’re at the stage yet where there are enough people vaccinated for it not to be a risk.
“If the government’s roadmap overall can be met, then obviously it's a good thing - but it has got to be based around evidence on infection levels and deaths, because the last thing we want is to go back into a fourth lockdown.”