Report of Strategic Director, Resources and Digital
The Committee received a report and presentation setting out the impact of the Covid-19 response relevant to its remit.
It was reported that services have continued to respond and identify the impact of Covid-19 with a focus on supporting residents, businesses and employees. The Committee were also advised that a further Covid household survey had been undertaken and the results of this would be shared at a future meeting.
It was highlighted that supplies of PPE are consistent despite shortages and price rises in some areas; it was also noted that all business impact assessments and business continuity plans have been reviewed.
From the presentation the Committee were provided with a summary from officers in Customer Experience and Digital on the support provided to residents and local businesses. It was stated that the Council Tax support scheme had been agreed for 2021/22 in addition to a Council Tax hardship fund.
It was reported that since the start of the pandemic up to May 2021 59,694 Council Tax telephone contacts had been made in addition to 43,199 contacts for benefits. The Committee acknowledged that there had been high levels of contact so that those who were struggling could receive the support they are entitled to. From the report, the Committee noted that additional support had been provided to residents via self-isolation payments, winter grants and the Covid local support grant.
An overview of work undertaken by the hubs in Gateshead was presented, the Committee noted that over 12,500 requests for help had been received via this channel. It was stated that over 9,500 emergency food parcels had also been provided and that partnership work with Citizens Advice and Age UK was taking place.
The Committee received an update on support to business up to 2 June 2021. From the presentation it was highlighted that 1,200 businesses had benefitted from a twelve-month business rate holiday. It was also reported that 12,528 payments totalling £34,624,345 had been provided to businesses that had been impacted or forced to close during the pandemic. The Committee received assurance that as grants were distributed there had been a thorough monitoring and audit process in place to prevent fraud.
A summary of additional support provided to business was also provided, this included support on business compliance and safe trading. It was noted that the Shop Local Shop Safe campaign had been launched and that specialist support had been made available for local retailers.
It was reported that the ability of businesses to thrive during the pandemic is heavily influenced by the sector in which they operate; it was highlighted that businesses within the hospitality, leisure and events industries had been particularly impacted. It was stated that larger businesses have been more resilient due to greater resources and capacity. The Committee also received information on the use of furlough which has been extensively used to supress costs in response to reduced demand.
The Committee were advised that a quarterly business survey had been conducted in partnership with NGI and were provided with two case studies to illustrate the impact of the pandemic on different kinds of business. An overview of workforce support was also reported.
The Committee questioned whether the upsurge in online retailing had contributed to the decline of high street retail sales during the pandemic; it was also noted that some key high street retailers had been lost such as Debenhams. Officers advised that there is no direct insight into the viability of private enterprises, but that research has suggested that 54% of visitors to the region come for shopping. It was noted that high street shopping habits and customer expectations were evolving and that some retailers have struggled to evolve and that the pandemic had not helped this. It was highlighted that many shoppers now seek a more experiential transactions whilst shopping. It was also reported that the Metrocentre are aware of this change in trend and are working with retailers to improve.
The Committee were advised during discussion that the Gateshead Quays development had been mentioned in the national Tourism Recovery Plan. A discussion also took place over the viability of small businesses to survive without accumulating debts as a result of liabilities accumulated during the course of the pandemic.
The Committee acknowledged that the Council has strong relationships with local businesses. The Committee noted its thanks to officers for the support they had provided to both residents and businesses but noted concern that not all businesses were eligible for support based on the Government’s criteria.
A comment was also made that tourist destinations such as Beamish have reopened with limited capacity; it was acknowledged that whilst these businesses are open and are full, they are not yet thriving due to the limited number of visitors allowed in.
(i) The Committee considered the impact of the pandemic and noted the contents of the report and presentation.