With restrictions easing this week, I thought it might be helpful to send an update.
As you’ll have seen, all shops are permitted to reopen from today Monday 15th, though it’s of course up to them whether they wish to. Because we have narrow pavements in Godalming and Farnham, queuing at a 2-metre distance would have been problematic, so the Farnham pavements have been extended and Godalming High Street has been pedestrianised. This is provisional and might not last indefinitely if the virus is effectively banished, but Godalming council is keen to see how it works.
WW. We understand that Cranleigh High Street is now one-way. Up one way down the other.
Hairdressers and hotels are not yet allowed to reopen, and the 2-metre rule makes it almost impossible for most pubs: this may be relaxed to 1 metre, though expert opinion is divided about how safe that is. I anticipate that most restrictions will have gone by the autumn, but everyone is wary of a resurgence of the virus in the winter when the combination with normal flu outbreaks would be particularly difficult (and queuing for shops would be much more unpleasant in the dark or rain).
Like every other council in Britain, Waverley is facing a horrendous deficit, because income from car parks and leisure centres have disappeared.
Originally, it was thought that the Government would cover this (we were all told by Ministers “Spend what you need to, the Government will sort it out later”), but it now looks as though they will only reimburse councils for extra expenditure and not for lost income – even where the income has been lost by government order (e.g. closing leisure centres). The deficit for 2020-21 is expected to be at least £6 million, with a “balancing” payment from Government of £1.3 million.
This leaves a gap of over £4.5 million, and councils are not legally permitted to run up debts as the Government can. Nor can we raise council tax as that’s fixed for the year.
We will restart parking charges from July 1 as a first step to stopping the rot (in response to requests from shops we’re doing this two weeks later than the reopening tomorrow, so people can park free while they get used to going back to the centres). Like all councils we’re pressing the Government to reconsider – it’s not really in the interest of sensible government that every council in Britain should be insolvent. If they refuse, I anticipate the need to raise car park charges further as it’s the only significant income lever that we have – but for now, let’s see how the return towards shopping normality goes.
A good solution for this area would be for the Government to allow councils to retain a significant part of local business rates – at present, we are required to collect them but to pass nearly all the revenue to the Government. That’s not a solution that would work everywhere since some councils have very few businesses in their area, but we have to focus on what will help here.
Meanwhile, we’ve watched the scenes of violence highlighted by the media around the country with dismay, and it’s important to stress that local solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement has been, like most of the protests, entirely peaceful (which, sadly, is why the media aren’t bothering to report it). I published on Facebook the statement from the Council executive, agreed with and read out by the new Mayor (Penny Marriott). We wanted to be constructive, local but not parochial, and not just passively express sympathy.
As community leaders, we oppose all racism, discrimination and hate and promote equality.
Waverley Borough Council stands alongside those who are appalled and saddened by the loss of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US. His shocking death highlights the injustices endured by black people on a daily basis in America and has also made us face up to the inequalities experienced by black communities here in the UK.
Now is the time to stand with the black community and all those who are racially oppressed – as we always strive to ensure our borough supports and treats everyone fairly, regardless of age, race, gender or sexual orientation.
We are reconfirming our commitment to address inequality and injustice in our own borough. We will consider and reflect on how we can do more to make a difference and will outline what steps we will take towards this shortly. But, in the meantime, let’s start this work today: let’s start by us all committing to actively seeing, listening and educating ourselves on the injustices faced by our black residents, officers and communities across the UK. Let’s be role models in empathy, kindness and standing up for what is right. Let’s use our position and privilege to make this borough a fairer, safer and more equal borough for everyone.
There was a bit of criticism of this from some posts, asking why we were thinking about this rather than local potholes, but most people felt it struck the right note – as I said, it’s possible for councillors to be concerned about both potholes and lives. We’re keen to make this more than just words, and suggestions for how we can contribute to making our country more inclusive for everyone are very welcome.
WW. Here’s the sting?
Finally, there are reports that Government, seemingly finding themselves short of things to do, plans to embark on local government reorganisation in the autumn, converting the current Surrey County Council and borough councils like Waverley into a new structure with one or more unitary authorities. I would have thought that waiting for Covid-19 and Brexit to pass would make sense, and we’ll have to see if they really devote Ministerial time to it!