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Tough Times Ahead Tackling Economic Recovery For New County Councillors

Published on: 22 Apr, 2021
Updated on: 22 Apr, 2021

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

This past difficult year has presented new problems for our elected authorities, not allowing them to tackle existing ones properly. These await our new county councillors after May 6.

One of the thorniest issues facing whoever wins our votes is economic recovery.

Covid-19 has profoundly affected family finances, and the work of the One Surrey Growth Board on economic recovery will be vital over the coming months.

The people hit hardest include those aged 16 to 34, the self-employed, and those in unstable or commission-based industries such as aviation and sales.

More than 157,000 people in the county, in a quarter of employments eligible for furlough, took up the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in July.

On average, the take-up rate was 28%, with the England average at 30%, though just above this were Spelthorne and Runnymede, where many work at Heathrow Airport.

But the full scale of unemployment is expected to be revealed after the furlough scheme ends.

Until then, the government is paying employees up to 80% of their pay for hours not worked, for example in the hospitality industries, but after September 30 this will fall back on employers.

Already, the pandemic has caused the rate of claims for Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance in Surrey to soar by 227.8% for April to June 2020, compared to the similar period in 2019.

The South East average was 170.4% and nationally 120.9%. All Surrey’s borough and districts recorded higher increases. Lowest in Surrey was Epsom and Ewell, still very high at 246.2%.

More than 6,500 food parcels had to be delivered by Guildford Borough Council alone in the year up to March 2021, evidence of the poverty many families and other vulnerable residents were suffering.

Last year, 20,000 Surrey children eligible for free school meals had to rely on food banks during half-term. The county council helped over the Christmas and Easter holidays, using the government’s Covid Winter Grant funding to provide supermarket vouchers. A Liberal Democrat motion to help fund school breakfast clubs was voted down.

Many residents will continue to need support, and the council tax base, a major funder of the area’s services, has been kept unusually low.

Cllr Tim Oliver

Present Conservative council leader Tim Oliver (Weybridge) said a key focus area for the council would be working with further education colleges to reskill and upskill.

He hopes the “green economy” and the health and social care sector will help create “tens of thousands of jobs” in the county, with Surrey having the “highest number of care homes in the country”.

Councils will also have to try to reimagine their high streets to inject new life back into town centres. Cllr Oliver said he would like to see them used more for “leisure facilities, things you can do”, rather than conversion into housing,

He also hopes to persuade residents to work locally and plans to convert some library spaces into free business hubs for residents to work from.

Cllr Oliver added: “Pre-Covid, something like 35% of residents were commuting to London every day. If we can get some of those to stay it will really help our local economy.

“We will need to invest and subsidise the roll-out of superfast broadband [above 30Mb]. We’re in a world now where we cannot live without that.”

He said Surrey’s access is well behind the national average and the council would be “pitching hard” for government funding.

In 18 postcode areas of Surrey, at least 75% of households are unable to receive speeds of 2Mbit/s, Ofcom data from May 2020 show. These include parts of Cranleigh, Cobham and Horley, where it takes about 10 seconds to load a standard webpage.

Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership found about 200,000 of Surrey’s 1.2 million residents are digitally excluded, and this is linked to areas of greater deprivation. As of last July, 11% of the county population had not accessed the internet in the previous three months.

Cllr Robert Evans

County Cllr Robert Evans (Lab, Stanwell & Stanwell Moor), said: “What Surrey needs is the government to recognise the real depth of the challenges facing the county, just as they did after the war with state aid.

“Town centres such as Staines and others have lost a lot of shops, Debenhams has closed all its branches across Surrey and we need support for that.

“There really has to be heavy government investment and the Chancellor has got to be very careful not to bring in austerity measures too soon to suffer a double hit to the economy.

“Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is from Surrey [Oxted], is proposing government-issued bonds, so those who have managed to save can lend to the government and directly help their community.”

Last December, the Bank of England calculated that private savings during the pandemic totalled more than £100 billion. That was expected to rise by about 20% over the next four months.

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