Careful steps designed to help the reopening of local shops and businesses as the district moves from Coronavirus lockdown to recovery are being planned.
Councillor Chris Whitbread, Leader of Epping Forest District Council said:
As people make tentative steps towards a new normality, the move signals a change in the Council’s response from emergency measures to long-term adjustment.
Time to open business
Re-starting the local economy is one of the Council’s top priorities, but Councillor Whitbread says this has to be done as safely as possible.
Long-term, everyone’s wellbeing and livelihood depends on getting business back on its feet. People need jobs to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, but it has to be done with the utmost care and attention to everyone’s safety.
Epping Forest District Council has been applauded by Central Government and local businesses for its initial response to the Coronavirus. While nearly all its staff were able to continue working from home – well over 400 on most days – it set up a 24/7 Coronavirus helpline to support local people. Council staff have been delivering food and support to people in the most vulnerable shielding groups.
Local business has benefitted from the Council’s quick support too. By mid-April, Epping Forest District Council had paid out over £27 million in rate relief to local businesses putting it right at the top of ranking tables for both London and Anglia.
Councillor Whitbread said:
I want to make it clear. Epping Forest District Council supports local business and we will continue to do everything we can to help the local economic recovery.
Council won’t wait for funding
Councillor Whitbread offered further reassurance. He said:
People have been asking me, can Epping Forest District Council afford this? What if we can’t get grants? Will we put Council Tax up?
It’s too early to say anything about Council Tax for certain but I can say this. Epping Forest District Council has been one of the most prudently run local authorities. We have the lowest Council Tax in Essex. We’ve only increased it once in the last 10 years, and we have always made provision for a ‘rainy day’. Coronavirus has so far cost us more than £6 million but we remain financially strong because of the things we did before.
We are ready. Swift Government action through business and emergency grant funding and our strong working partnership with ECC and other partners has also been critical. Local and central government agencies are working ever closer together in response to the pandemic. We all continue to recognise the need to respond quickly, supporting our communities and restoring confidence in our local economies through the recovery in people’s homes, their families and their workplaces.
Now is the time for all of us to pull together as never before. In the past few months we have seen the incredible job of the nurses, doctors and support staff in our health and care services. They have shown us what’s possible. It’s now up to the rest of us to follow their example and put our district, economy and our country back on its feet.
Bringing high streets back
Council officers have been working on plans to make the district’s high streets safer. Proposals are being drawn up for signs and street furniture to help people stay safe.
Councillor Whitbread explained:
We need to create space on our pavements. Our plans include removing railings. We will bring in planters and seating to create safe division between pedestrians and cars. We are looking at ways of reducing the number of cars in our high streets, compensated by finding parking space elsewhere such as the Council’s own staff carparks currently underused as most of our people work from home. We’ve commissioned printers to produce hundreds of signs, posters and floor mats to help people maintain safe social distances from each other. We may even be able to introduce some pedestrian ‘one-way’ systems similar to those many of us have got used to in the supermarkets.
Speed is of the essence
Councillor Whitbread continued:
Usually, these projects take a long time but speed is of the essence. We need to re-boot our high streets now and people will start to see these changes quickly. Not everything will work perfectly straight away but we will learn as we go – adapting and changing according to experience.
Direct help to shops and shoppers
There is a lot to be learnt from the way supermarkets, grocers and petrol stations have managed during the Coronavirus crisis.
Councillor Whitbread says:
Supermarkets generally have lots of space but we will have to get used to queuing and social distancing in all high street shops and businesses as they reopen. We are there to help our retailers plan and manage these new processes.
Bids for funding
The government has set up £250 million fund to help high streets reopen. £1.9 million has been allocated to Essex and the County Council has already agreed the first bid prepared by Epping Forest District Council – a project costing £60,000 to make changes to Epping High Street.
Epping Forest District Council has only been allowed to make one bid so far, but a similar £25,000 bid has also been prepared for Waltham Abbey. Others for Loughton are in the pipeline. All bids are designed for projects to be completed in a maximum of 8 weeks.
Working with local people
Councillor Whitbread acknowledges the speed of the work will leave people surprised. He said:
Coronavirus has been likened to a wartime situation. These are rapid recovery measures in response to an emergency situation. As such we just don’t have time for all the normal consultation and debate that would usually come before such projects. But I still want to involve people as widely as possible.
We are about to launch an online consultation tool called Common Place to help engage with our residents. We are talking with our Chambers of Commerce and Town Centre Partnerships. Individual councillors are in daily conversation with residents too. But perhaps the most important partners we need on board are our local Town and Parish councils. Many have their own vital contributions to make for the recovery of our high streets. Epping Town Council has made its first steps towards reopening the town’s market. Waltham Abbey has managed to keep its market going throughout. Other Town and Parish Councils have also been working tirelessly behind the scenes.
The only District Council market, at North Weald Airfield is expected to restart next Saturday 13 June.