Last Monday a work experience student started shadowing me. He’d shown initiative and arranged the placement himself – it’s great to see kids engaging in civic life. It would have been interesting to see a fifteen-year-old’s view of the Combined Authority and the unfolding Covid-19 crisis. Unfortunately, within hours of him starting, he, like the rest of my staff, was advised to work from home. So sorry, Faron, we’ll rearrange later in the year.
These are extraordinary times. At fifteen, he’d have seen nothing like it. But who has? We’re hearing lots of wartime comparisons. But in war there’s a clear enemy, and production and work ramps up. Much of our economy is shutting down.
The advice is changing rapidly. So whatever I write might be out of date by the time you read it. Still, as many who lived through the war can attest, a newspaper can be a useful emergency back-up when toilet roll is scarce.
So face-to-face meetings have been replaced with Skype and conference calls. Old laptops have been brought out of retirement for people to work from home. Our IT infrastructure has been tested like never before.
The idea of metro Mayors is still new – and for clarity, the North of Tyne doesn’t run any emergency services, health or transport. That may be devolved in future, though, as it is in Manchester and London. The local councils and blue light services are leading the front-line response.
Our role is economic development. Shaping the immediate response. Speaking with ministers and officials. Supporting local authorities and the voluntary sector. And working with business organisations to prepare the ground for a recovery plan once the crisis is over.
My top priority is to protect the livelihoods of our people. Our businesses, large and small, are the lifeblood of our local economy. My team and I are fighting to get them all the resources and support we can.
I have been just one of many voices feeding in, but thankfully central government has listened. Supporting people’s wages, up to £2500 per month, is the right thing to do. If people have their wages, most of the other economic problems take care of themselves. It’s the fastest way to get money to people, and to keep intricate and complex financial relationships in place. Otherwise, once people get into debt and stop paying their bills, it’s like dominoes toppling.
At the time of writing, government still hasn’t announced a plan to support micro businesses and the self-employed. Five million of our fellow citizens earn a living in this way – it’s urgent. Statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week is not enough to put food on the table and pay the rent. And if you’re running a business, your other bills don’t just stop – whether equipment, loans, or service contracts.
Many micro businesses aren’t on the business rates system. For example those who rent managed office space, or are based in enterprise centres. They won’t be eligible for the grant help on offer. It’s crucial that central government plugs this gap very soon.
First published in The Chronicle and The Journal on 23rd March 2020