Economy and business is centre stage as we move out of lockdown, says county council leader

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 05 June 2020 8:27

Businesses looking for reassurance from the county council about where they stand in its list of priorities should find reassurance in what follows.

Despite a check-list longer than his arm – which began at the start of the pandemic with children’s services, social care and schools, safety of 3,800 staff and extends to household recycling, roads - the council’s political leader, Mark Hawthorne, his sure what the priority is now.

“For us the message is about getting Gloucestershire back open for business and putting measures in place that return prosperity to our county,” said Mr Hawthorne, his words just pipping to the post the Government’s own similar grand reveal.

(Image courtesy of GFirst LEP)

It is understood the county has a put together “a recovery pot of several million pounds” to focus on sectors (not individual businesses) which are ready to reopen - and to determine where that money can make the most impact.

Money, of course, is key. The bill for 2020/21 as a result of the pandemic is expected to be at least £38m. Support has come from the Government in the form of £27m and the district councils have a further extra £6m between them.

“The total bill is very significant. But so is the Government support. If we continue to get that I am feeling relatively confident,” said county council chief executive Pete Bungard, speaking alongside Mr Hawthorne on a county council Covid-19 Facebook question and answer session.

An immediate 10 per cent increase in payments to the care sector has been one significant cost – helping to cover PPE and staff wages.

Mr Hawthorne’s agenda for the economy also looks beyond the immediate too. He does not intend to let hard-won ground on major infrastructure projects promised to the county be lost in the current storm.

“Between the A417 and the two motorway junctions that is about £1 billion worth of investment,” with all of the above expected to help drive economic, infrastructure and housing development.

“Work has continued on these and we have continued to work closely with Government and highways England and continue to work with Homes England on our housing need.

“There is a huge amount still going on to ensure these projects continue to land in the county. They are key to Gloucestershire’s business future.

“There is a lot of commitment to ensure all the hard work we have put in is not lost and they remain a real focus,” he said.

The junctions unlocking the way to the £400m cyber park development near Cheltenham, and other major development projects.

It is a message echoed by the likes of the county’s local enterprise partnership, GFirst LEP (of which Mr Hawthorne is a board member) - which has been in conversation with Gloucestershire’s MPs about the same topic.

Read more: Vital report will help determine prognosis for Gloucestershire’s economy

All signs would suggest that kind of joined-up thinking – where business leaders talk to the public sector and together that get things get done – is actually a reality. If only it were possible to bottle the magic as a future tonic. Certainly, it is a good look to project to the outside world of a dynamic, business-orientated county.

“We will be focusing on the things that are really important to Gloucestershire for investment going forward. The growth of our economy will be key to how we do that.

“Detail like broadband – we now know more than ever that we need full-fibre and 5G fully embedded. One of the things many will take from this are the benefits of remote working.

“But the council wants to hear from business. We want to understand that they need to get from where they are to up and running,” said Mr Hawthorne, who took over the hot seat of leadership when fellow Conservative Barry Dare retired in 2010.

The move made him the youngest upper tier authority leader in the country at the time, although he was elected to Gloucester City Council in 1998 aged just 22 and became its leader in 2004 before stepping down in 2007.

Re-elected as leader following the May 2013 elections, Mr Hawthorne was awarded an MBE for services to local government in the 2014 New Year Honours list.

But it is fair to say nothing has tested his mettle quite like the on-going pandemic.

"I think we started like most organisations – in looking after our staff,” said Mr Hawthorne, whose words cannot do not do justice to the enormity of the task the whole council faced.

“We knew we needed to shut down Shire Hall and facilitate remote working for all staff where possible.

“I think we achieve that within 10 days, setting up about 2,500 staff to remotely access their support so they could continue to work and operate.

“Then we focused on children’s services and adult social care – and still have huge tasks in those areas. We needed to make sure those two areas could continue to operate and be supported through the covid-19 pandemic.”

This also involved closely working with the hospitals. The task was immense, and beyond the possible for the existing staff team, as willing as they were.

So, the council set up Help Hubs and invited volunteers to step forward. He sounds genuinely in awe of what local authorities existing team achieved and continue to, but of all the figures that roll off his tongue the 3,000 who volunteered is among those that that move him most.

“I cannot thank the key workers and front-line workers enough. And without these volunteers we would never have achieved what we have managed in the last few weeks,” he said.

“Because of them we were able to move forward, to setting up processes around shielded groups, setting up how to deliver food parcels and in those very early days working closely with Government.

“Those first two weeks were full-on, but an enormous amount was achieved.”

He added: “I have been immensely proud of the way staff have just responded. Everyone really stepped up – from public health through to IT and that made it possible for us to support the communities. It was really, really impressive.

“And then about three weeks ago we started to also look at how we could switch back on a lot of our services.”

We can’t cover it off here, but he heaps praise also on the work of the county’s district, borough and city local authorities which had distributed vital funds to business and coordinated their efforts with everyone else. It is an approach the county council will continue to mirror foe the foreseeable.

“We continue to work very closely with the districts and the LEP and focusing on two key focuses - one, unlocking the county to help people get back up and running, looking to see what sectors need the most support and which we can get moving first – like leisure and tourism.

“Then we have looked at capturing the long-term costs to the county.”

Figures on what that might be are expected on desks next week (June 9), understands.

Read more: Vital report will help determine prognosis for Gloucestershire’s economy