Our speaker on October 9th was Andrew Waller, who is a Liberal Democrat City of York Councillor, was first elected as the Member for Westfield Ward in 1994. He was leader of the Council between 2008 and 2011 and is now the executive member for economy and strategic planning. He has a wide-ranging portfolio including regeneration; high streets; business support; skills development and apprenticeships; health and safety, public protection and trading standards; planning, conservation and building control, to mention just a few. In addition, he is a supporter of many local organisations and worthy causes (and is a Friend of York Rotary).
Andrew started his talk by reminding us that the first cases of covid were reported in the city in January and the situation was further complicated by floods in February. Following the national lockdown in March, many of our residents were unable to leave their homes and in response, the council coordinated the formation of community hubs which were set up across York. Over four thousand volunteers provided material support to the vulnerable and shielding citizens of our city. The much-needed service they gave involved the delivery of food, collection of prescriptions and the provision of other essential requirements. Buddy calls also ensured the wellbeing of those in need.
With over thirty thousand residents on furlough there are serious concerns over how many of this number would become unemployed once the furlough scheme ends. There has already been a marked increase in the number of applicants for universal credit across the city. With some government support the city council has done its best to keep businesses open with business relief and grants to the retail, hospitality and leisure sector and this has provided over one hundred and eleven million pounds to businesses in the city.
With worries as to how the hospitality and retail industry would survive further restrictions, the city council has encouraged and helped many areas across the city to start up and open. Some of the areas that have been assisted, are market stalls, construction, universities, schools, and public transport with additional advice on observing social distancing, the wearing of face masks and hand washing to keep people as safe as possible. Off premises catering has been encouraged with the provision of space in streets and green areas within the city. York city council has also taken advantage of government funds to encourage cycling as a safer way of accessing shops and businesses,
It is encouraging that after lockdown, footfall in the city centre is on the increase, and hotels are seeing relatively strong occupancy rates. The eat out to help out initiative did help. The 10pm closure of pubs was disappointing and resulted in large gatherings of people coming out onto the streets at the same time. This came as no surprise to those of us who remember the 11pm chucking out time!
Looking to the future, we have to keep projects going that will create employment for people that have lost their jobs due to covid and we have to rely on government grants to enable retraining across all age groups.