On Monday, the Prime Minister set out how we will continue to fight back against the resurgent virus, protecting our NHS and saving lives whilst keeping the economy running to safeguard jobs and livelihoods.
The government took robust action in September, including introducing the Rule of Six, restrictions to hospitality opening hours, and advice for people to work from home where they can, alongside tougher enforcement measures.
However, in the past four weeks, the number of Covid patients admitted to intensive care units in hospitals in some parts of the country has increased sevenfold. If infections continue to rise at this rate, then in just four more weeks those hospitals could be treating more Covid patients than they did at the peak of the first wave.
The number of cases of coronavirus per 100,000 of the population here in Huntingdonshire has risen nearly tenfold in just a few short weeks. I must therefore stress the importance of everybody playing their part and following the guidance to control the spread of the virus and protect our local economy, local jobs and the livelihoods of our residents.
I have great faith in the common sense of the British people, and the vast majority of the residents of Huntingdonshire are being responsible, doing the right thing, following guidance and helping to prevent the spread of the virus. However, we are still seeing too many examples locally of people not understanding or not accepting that some of the measures in place are there to protect our most vulnerable residents.
I appreciate that the current restrictions impact on our way of life, but we must act in a spirit of togetherness to suppress this virus now to save lives and to enable us to avoid tougher measures later.
Today, parts of the country will enter into the Covid alert level three, as part of the government’s plans to simplify and standardise local rules through a three-tiered system of local Covid alert levels. This signifies a new way of working with local leaders to target measures in areas of the country where they are most needed.
I do not want to see another national lockdown, and nor do I want Huntingdonshire’s alert level to rise to the point that we have to endure a local lockdown. Put simply, I believe the effect of such measures on our local economy would be catastrophic.
I discussed this with Mayor Palmer this morning and we are united in the view that local lockdowns must be considered on a district by district basis, rather than at a county or regional level. A rapidly rising number of new cases elsewhere in the county for example cannot be allowed to plunge Huntingdonshire’s businesses into a forced closure that many of them are saying they would not be able to survive.
It is important that any judgements are able to be made locally and take into account both the aims of protecting lives by management of the virus and protecting livelihoods through supporting our local economy.
Covid-19 will be blamed for many things as time goes by. But one thing is certain, it has accelerated the demise of town centres and high streets across the country as shopping destinations and paved the way for a post-retail landscape to emerge.
Although Huntingdonshire’s market towns are faring well in the circumstances; lockdown effectively shut our high streets overnight and led to internet shopping growing further, putting our local retailers under even greater pressure.
However, it’s worth considering that pre-pandemic, the high street was already facing significant challenges – with 12% of all UK shops vacant in March 2020. Covid-19 has both highlighted the issue and exacerbated it. Retail floor space is estimated to shrink by as much as 80% across the country, a result of the pandemic combined with the underlying trend of decline.
Faced with these enormous challenges we are presented with an opportunity to lead a values-led period of renewal to make our town centres fit for the future and deliver lasting change.
A recent poll revealed that only 9% of people want life to return to 'normal' after the pandemic is over. People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, and many have decided that a better way of doing things is possible – and how we use our town centres must be part of this. We are seeing that people are appreciating spending less money, valuing the local environment more and sharing a stronger sense of community.
Many people tend to think back to a golden age of high streets and this still exerts a powerful nostalgic pull; but the need to reduce the reliance on 'traditional' retail and give consumers other reasons to visit our towns is now more critical than ever. The 'has it got a Waitrose or an M&S' checklist isn’t helpful. Instead of asking what brands are on our high streets, we need to be asking what great experiences can be had there to encourage their use as community and leisure hubs.
I appreciate that not everyone will immediately embrace this vision for our town centres but doing nothing is not a realistic option and we simply can’t halt the advance of online shopping and the changing nature of consumer habits. This council has therefore already submitted a £12 million Future High Streets Fund plan to transform St Neots, and we are now embarking on similar bold plans to prepare Huntingdonshire’s other market towns for a post-Covid future in which they can not only survive but thrive.
We have been successful in securing £300k from the Combined Authority to develop similar multi-million-pound St Neots style investment and regeneration plans for our other market towns, and in the short-term, we are also actively working with Mayor Palmer on plans to utilise £1.5 million of Covid recovery funding that he has agreed for Huntingdonshire’s towns. In addition to this, I wrote to the Mayor again today to request a further £500k to meet the immediate recovery needs of St Neots.
This week also saw the launch of HDC’s Think Local campaign that will run until January and will build upon the success of the Reopening Huntingdonshire campaign in promoting what our local high streets have to offer.
I joined the Mayor of St Neots last week to launch free public access Wi-Fi covering the centre of St Neots, and this will shortly be rolled out to our other market towns. We have also been working with Openreach to deliver full fibre broadband across Huntingdonshire and I am delighted that St Neots and its surrounding villages have been announced as the first phase of this rollout. We are now undertaking further work with Openreach to expand this coverage to other parts of the district, both urban and rural.
Few areas of society have been more affected by coronavirus than our town centre economies, but this administration is meeting the challenge head on and taking a strategic and proactive position on supporting them. We’re not fruitlessly fighting the tide or just waiting and hoping for things to get better; instead, and in addition to the £50 million of grants and business rate reliefs we have already delivered to local businesses, we’re setting out a strong vision for the future prosperity of Huntingdonshire and getting on with delivering unprecedented investment and opportunities to make our towns fit for the future.
Be in no doubt colleagues that the weeks and months ahead will continue to be difficult and will test us all, but if we can champion a positive future for Huntingdonshire and continue to harness the same spirit that has helped our great district get through the year so far then I am confident that our community will overcome these challenges and continue to prosper.