WHEN I became leader of Westminster City Council a year ago, I was planning for a year of radical change. Like many council leaders across the country, I set out our plan for the year – called City for All – which put a greener and cleaner Westminster, smarter technology and vibrant communities at its heart.
Then COVID-19 stopped us in our tracks, leading to a pandemic that would turn our lives upside down. On March 23, the Prime Minister announced the first national lockdown and seismic changes in how we live and work became the new normal.
Pre-COVID, Westminster’s streets were walked by a million people a day – working, shopping, and sightseeing. Our normally bustling West End is now silent and deserted. Chinatown and Theatreland are empty.
Councils across the country have earned spurs during this turbulent era. We have all channelled central Government grants to businesses struggling to survive and worked with the NHS to prepare for the vaccination programme. As fatalities tragically rise, we have prepared emergency mortuary space and worked with police to ensure the safety message is heard.
In Westminster, we have done what we can do keep people in jobs – introducing temporary al-fresco dining areas so our 3,700 restaurants, cafes and bars had a chance of keeping their customers. The council installed an extra 11km of cycle lanes and widened our pavements by thousands of metres at key locations so people had space to pass each other. Frontline council staff have continued to work delivering vital services, from care homes to bin collections. In Westminster, we put out a request for local people who wanted to help the community to let us know.
What happened next floored me. Our initial modest volunteer team now stands at more than 3,000 people in an enterprise we call Westminster Connects. They have delivered food, packaged bags, sewn face masks, dropped soup off to shattered NHS staff – a gamut of tasks as varied as the people who have offered to do them.
Times of emergency mean we can all tumble into doing new jobs we didn’t envisage. I found myself alongside volunteers packing hundreds of meals for vulnerable people in hostels. On one occasion I spent a day handing out emergency service staff their lunch on an extended pizza shovel in the forecourt of a five-star hotel which had given over its kitchens to the aid effort. I have been amazed by what we have done as a local authority. But we can’t do it all alone. Councils must have the central Government funding system in place to help businesses stand on two feet when lockdown eventually lifts.
Even as we face stark warnings that our hospitals face being overwhelmed by the worst COVID surge yet, as council leaders we need to plan for recovery. The vaccination programme will make its mark and people need jobs to go back to. That is why I am urging the Treasury to extend the business rates holiday beyond the end of March and to ensure that councils get funding according to the number of businesses they have rather than population head count. We have 39,000 businesses in Westminster; the current funding formula to help them survive amounts to palliative care only at around £100 per business. This is a sticking plaster when we need a tourniquet.
Like local authorities across the land, the cost of COVID will be with us for years. While Government grants have supported us, our savings programme envisages cuts of £90m over three years. But I became leader with a pledge– that Westminster is a place where people should have a chance of living in an affordable home, going to a good school, have access to open spaces with clean air, and grow old with support at hand. We are going to make good on that promise.
At the bleakest time, we are planning for when the blight lifts. To borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens, the season of darkness will be replaced by the spring of hope. The shutters will come up and we will be ready to help our cafes set out their tables, our businesses trade and our residents get back to enjoying their City.
People from all over the world have made Westminster their home. And over the last year they have shown resilience, determination and kept their sense of humour. We owe it to them to make sure they get the City they know back.
Cllr Rachael Robathan is leader of Westminster City Council