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Seeing Red: Let’s get Thanet fit for the future

Seeing Red is my regular column in The Isle of Thanet News. This opinion piece was first published on May 11 2020.

It’s a tough ambition, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if, after the Corona virus crisis, we had an agreed long-term plan for Thanet? A plan that ensured our area would be fit for the future, fit for our children and fit for the planet? A plan that was both ‘green’ and good for our environment, but also economically sound, promoting a healthy local economy. A lot of people now believe that the only decent future is a green and sustainable one. More so now, after we appear to have seen nature flourish during lockdown.

Community at its best

In recent weeks we’ve seen the people of Thanet at their very best. In Ramsgate, everyone seems to have largely abided by the plain and simple ‘stay at home’ rule. Ramsgate Town Council (RTC) have been working very effectively with the Salvation Army, ‘Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet’, RTC staff and many dedicated and public spirited volunteers to deliver around 450 food parcels a week across our area.

It appears to me that everyone has someone looking out for them. From Chatham and Clarendon House school pupils making protective visors, to Age UK delivering dinners to our veterans on VE Day. Locals have been supporting Thanet businesses by ordering take-away food, which is now being delivered from reopened restaurants. Everyone is trying hard to survive together. Thanet has a strong community.

A huge hit to Thanet’s economy

It’s also true that for many people these weeks have been exceptionally hard and challenging. Covid-19 has throughly exposed the inequalities in our society, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. None more so than our elderly in care homes. Thanet has the poorest council wards in Kent and the poorest health, with life expectancy going backwards. Post Covid, there are real concerns about a deep and hard recession. In our highly seasonal economy, the local job losses which are now happening, and any future job losses, will hit us all hard.

Thanet relies heavily on the tourist economy. This brings us £245m per annum. Our English schools for foreign students are also valuable. It’s estimated they add £33.6m into our local economy, providing more than 900 jobs. Many local residents, shops and cafes are involved in the supply chain.

I was disappointed to see the news of Dreamland making 52 redundancies, plus letting go all the casual zero-hour contract workers. It was a ‘hard knock’ for the loyal, hardworking staff team, when they heard the day after the lockdown was imposed that they were going to be made redundant. Dreamland attracts 750,000 visitors per year. Without retaining staff it doesn’t seem likely that the owners of the theme park are expecting to spring back into action later this year or even early next. This will have a very negative impact on the whole of Thanet’s economy.

Our hospitality sector will struggle. Our hotels, BnB’s, restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, are not necessarily going to just bounce back.

In recent weeks, I have seen care homes and domiciliary care providers struggle to obtain absolutely vital PPE. They have struggled to get staff. They struggle to make ends meet. We have to keep our care sector going to provide much needed care, but also vital employment.

The new rules

Those who cannot work from home are now being asked to get back to work. If you are able to undertake work in a workplace that is ‘Covid secure’ and providing your travel to work can be done safely you are allowed to return. For some, this will be possible. For others, not. Those in the grey area, such as employees without childcare provision, people living with someone who is shielded and workers who aren’t in ‘Covid secure’ workplaces will need to rely on their employers being ‘reasonable’.

Legalisation is in place to ensure your health and safety at work. In particular, Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, provides workers with the right not to be ‘victimised, disciplined or to receive any ‘detriment’ (i.e. loss of pay), if the worker has a strong reason to believe their workplace is unsafe and therefore refuse’s to enter it. My advice is to contact your your union rep, if you have one, about any concerns. If you don’t have one or you’re not in a union, please join one! Search “Join a union” and look for the link to the TUC website.

Planning for the future

I’m mindful of the need to plan ahead. If we can aim to keep our businesses open, plan our tourism offer and extend it so it’s essentially year-round, we’ll be doing really well. Doing so will help protect our existing local jobs including those in the public sector.

We need to keep putting money in all our pockets, so people have money to spend. It’s simplistic, but this is how we’ll keep our economy in Thanet going. I’m amongst those calling for a fairer Universal Credit system, or better still, a Universal Basic Income. We are a particularly vulnerable area. Because we are a low paid economy, we already have higher than average unemployment. A lot of work is seasonal and many workers are part of the ‘precariate’, defined as those without job security and on zero hour contracts. The Corona crisis has thrown into stark relief the fragility of our economy, with livelihoods disappearing overnight with no or little notice.

Kent County Council currently have £17.8m set aside for the proposed Thanet Parkway railway station at Cliffsend. Thanet District Council have set aside £2m towards the project. It’s now highly likely that Parkway will become a white elephant. It certainly doesn’t meet the more immediate needs of creating a buoyant and resilient local economy. That’s why I’m calling for KCC to instead use this money to bolster our local economy. Of course, we also need to see our Government step up and fully support coastal communities like ours. We can’t afford to be left behind again.

I’d like to see a radical transformation of our society and economy. We can’t suffer another miserable decade of austerity forced upon us. Government has to back investment focussed on high tech, green and net zero carbon businesses in our area. We must have a plan to save lives and livelihoods. We need a capital spending programme to boost our economy, to build green homes, to green our local industry and to boost green energy production. We should demand a blue print for survival based on a green revolution. The £20m currently earmarked for Parkway would give us the jump start we require.

Whilst now is a time for rapid response to a consuming crisis, it is also a period to take stock, re-evaluate our priorities and create bold plans for a brighter sustainable future for our corner of Kent.