Sat in a Westminster pizza restaurant with my daughter on a recent visit, the mood is buzzing, the venue is busy – only the serving staff in face masks and the socially distanced tables mark the changes.
Scenes like this are being replicated across the capital as, albeit slowly, we edge back to normality.
The restaurant I went to is one of 3,700 licensed venues in our city. You can add to that 38,000 business, large and small, that drive Westminster’s economy. With regular announcements of high street job cuts, the economic picture is challenging.
During the height of the pandemic we had the job of keeping businesses going by channelling tens of millions in central Government support grants. The VAT cut and discount dining announced by the Chancellor are also clearly going to help the hospitality sector.
But as council leaders, our role is not simply to act as a distribution arm of central government. We know the unique characteristics of our areas better than anyone, and we are there to intervene on behalf of residents and businesses. One of my early actions was to lobby the Chancellor to remove the £51,000 rateable value cap for business rates relief covering retail hospitality and leisure businesses. In central London this made a huge difference, and many shop owners have told me it made the difference between survival and going under.
Similarly, Westminster City Council devised a plan to allow our restaurants, pubs and cafes to place seating areas outside through the use of large scale temporary road closures. And we appreciated the support of people living near these venues who accepted this temporary measure was one way to allow the hospitality sector to rescue at least some jobs. However, they also told us they didn’t want off-sales from pubs and bars past 11pm, and we successfully lobbied the government to ensure that didn’t happen (the Business and Planning Act was amended).
As council leaders, it is our job to give people the confidence it is safe to return. We commissioned 40 schemes to make Westminster easier and safer to get around, for example adding 11km of temporary cycle paths and 19,000m2 of expanded pavement space.
Council staff running front line services never left Westminster, but we have now reopened City Hall in preparation for others to return. The dearth of people in our commercial and shopping areas is obvious, so it is important the council plants its flag firmly where it belongs - in the heart of the area it serves.
Local authorities have spent tens of millions in the last four months and our latest cabinet meeting examined the impact of that. But equally importantly, my cabinet colleagues underlined their commitment to funding our pre-Covid priorities.
We have 17 construction sites working on providing affordable homes, and they are all working again toward the target of delivering 2,400 properties. We are resuming work on our target of making Westminster carbon neutral through measures like overhauling council properties and expanding our network of electric vehicle charging points. This week I launched our roll-out of 20mph zones across the city, which will mean a safer environment for the children returning to school in September.
The war against coronavirus is not definitively won, but the threat is receding. Time then to plan for the peace, and how we can offer our residents and commuters confidence there are jobs to return to, a reviving economy and a city they can enjoy once more.