How Tower Hamlets council stepped up to support residents and businesses during the pandemic

'During this crisis local government has stepped up as we know headline GDP figures don’t always reflect the reality on our high streets'

Covid

Councillor Motin Uz-Zaman is the Deputy Mayor for Work & Economic Growth at Tower Hamlets Council

While the focus may be on the headline economic data it often conceals the different impact on the ground. We know the pandemic has been extremely difficult for many Tower Hamlets residents and businesses. We also know that younger and lower-paid workers have suffered most severely during Covid and so as a council we’ve stepped up to help support our residents.

Tower Hamlets had 31,000 residents on furlough at its peak while the number of Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance claimants saw an above-average increase from 3.5% to 6.1%. For lower earners, the 20% reduction in income associated with furlough often meant not being able to afford necessities, particularly in an inner London borough where housing costs are more than twice the national average. The First Love Foundation food bank saw a 700% increase in the number of residents requesting support between March and April 2020.

In response to the crisis, the council has taken an active role in the local economy, protecting those most vulnerable from the worst effects of poverty, supporting local businesses, and creating employment opportunities and training for our residents. Our efforts were recently recognised with the council winning a London Councils award for Best Programme of Support for Small Businesses.

Despite the challenges in the labour market, the council has supported more than 900 residents into work or better employment. Through the Kickstart scheme, we partnered with local businesses to secure 550 employment opportunities for young people – this is one of the highest numbers of placements secured by any local authority in the country. In addition, we are directly providing 33 Kickstart placements at the council and, as a Living Wage Employer, we are using our own funds to top up pay to London Living Wage levels.

We are providing a raft of businesses support. On top of implementing £200m of relief and grants to leisure, hospitality, and retail sectors, 598 businesses benefitted from free, online, expert-led seminars. Our Pivot Project provided small and micro businesses with £1,000 grants and advice from our partner, Enterprise Nation, to help them adapt to the new economic climate. 50 businesses benefitted from the first round of the scheme, and we’re hoping to fund an additional 150 during the second round of the scheme which has recently opened.

We used our commercial property portfolio to support community-based organisations by providing a three-month rent relief programme worth £98,210. This helped ensure vital community organisations were able to survive the pandemic and provide a lifeline to residents.

We have also taken action to support our local high streets and town centres as they struggled to cope with reduced footfall. The mayor has also invested £250,000 in a high streets clean-up programme to tackle litter, graffiti and fly-tipping in our town centres and high streets.

Our home delivery pilot supported 46 high street retail businesses to develop delivery services during lockdown using a local e-cargo bike delivery scheme. And we’re supporting our street markets through the Moving Markets Online project which will create and maintain an online platform for our licensed market trading areas.

This month we launched the fourth round of the discretionary Additional Restrictions Grant. We have chosen to target businesses in the hospitality, gym & sports, and personal care sectors as these have businesses will have been most affected by the Omicron variant and government advice to work from home.

The full extent of the economic impact of the pandemic is yet to become clear, particularly as our residents face a cost-of-living crisis coming on the back of the cut to Universal Credit. During this crisis local government has stepped up as we know headline GDP figures don’t always reflect the reality on our high streets and government needs to continue to empower councils to help their communities thrive.

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