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Seeing Red: Stepping up to the COVID economic challenge

Seeing Red is my regular column in The Isle of Thanet News. This opinion piece was first published on June 29 2020.

It’s great news that some of our lockdown conditions have now been lifted. This latest Government advice coincides with a spell of glorious weather, for which Thanet rightly enjoys a great reputation. It lifts spirits and adds to our sense of increased well-being.

However, dark clouds gather on the horizon, giving pause for thought. I’m sure we all ask ourselves “are we, and our loved ones truly safe and what will the ‘new normal’ look like?”

No matter how bright the sun shines, the Covid challenges continues. More than 50,000 people have died in the U.K. to date – Europe’s highest death toll. Plus, a record 20% contraction in the economy is expected. The International Monetary Fund say the UK will need to borrow £400 billion in the next two years to fund the UK’s response to Covid19 and tax shortfalls. This is the new reality we have to grapple with.

As Ramsgate’s County Councillor, I contacted most of the care homes and schools in my division to offer support and help during the Covid crisis. I was able to raise concerns flagged up to me by organisations and individuals alike and achieved some positive results. Likewise, I’ve been able to use my members grant to support our community. I’ve seen our community rally together brilliantly in many supportive and innovative ways. Though having great community doesn’t protect us from the realities of the on-going Covid19 crisis.

Redundancies have now started to hit Thanet. I’m being contacted by those residents for whom employment has been terminated or is under threat. We’ve seen a rise in unemployment from 5% to 9% and our youth unemployment is the highest in the South East, at 13.4%. We can’t afford a lost generation.

Child poverty stands at 35% across Thanet and a disgraceful 50% in some wards. Because of these significant challenges, at our full KCC council I called for funds to keep Ramsgate and indeed Thanet ‘standing’. For instance, why commit millions of pounds on a Parkway station? I talk to hundreds of people and no one has ever said Thanet needs a new railway station. £40m is an enormous amount to spend to gain a single minute on journey times between Ramsgate and London. Not to mention the prospect of having to drive to a station and the additional cost of parking. Surely that money could now be better directed? Surely the Covid crisis and the economic downturn demand that the ‘business as usual approach’ is suspended in favour of economic planning that really meets our new reality?

Yet, after a decade of budget cuts, councils across England are facing a £10bn funding black hole as the government is breaking its pledge to fund the cost of the coronavirus. Councils now face having to make cuts of over 20% to local services and jobs. KCC says they will be ‘short’ by up to £130 million over the next three years.

Meanwhile, the Social Market Foundation are suggesting that a layer of local government could be removed. This would create, I suppose, large ‘unitary’ authorities. The upside of this move would be some initial cost savings and that is, no doubt, the key driver for this potential initiative. The downside would be that services would invariably also be cut, perhaps leaving only bare minimum statutory services. Councils would become even more faceless, less accessible, even more distant and less responsive to local needs.

We urgently need to establish a cross party, cross department, local, focused and agile economic recovery committee. We have to swiftly deal with the rising tide of unemployment and under employment, to retrain workers, to allow people to develop new businesses, to support existing firms and to support our young people as they start their working lives.

Immediate action is required to work out a ‘survival and revival’ strategy for our community. Labour is calling for a recovery that protects workers and wellbeing for the long-term. We want to see a new social settlement, one that values individuals and communities. There must be a huge state-driven investment programme to build a fair and sustainable economy. Just like we did after World War Two, when we rebuilt our country by building homes, bringing to life the NHS and by supporting our community.

Like 1945, now is the time for visionary thinking. Labour has proposals for a radical Green New Deal to meet the urgent demands of climate change. Here in Thanet for instance blessed with our coast line, we could potentially produce our own energy, whether wind or tidal, and invest the profit made, directly into our community, rather than the pockets of investors. Public ownership provides better value for the tax-payer and consumer alike. We’re seeing that with the NHS and railways. It’s possible to build eco and affordable homes and we know many need these decent secure homes. We can ‘retro fit’ existing properties, residential and business to bring them to a new standard and end carbon dependency. There is much that we need to do to stem climate change to meet our zero carbon targets. It’s now about the political will and taking bold steps to make it a reality.

Nothing should be set in stone. Covid19 should prompt us all to stop doing ‘business as usual’. We can build a green economy, we can look after and prioritise people, we can build a better society based on ending carbon dependency, social justice and fare shares for everyone.