To receive verbal updates on the impact of Covid-19 on the following areas:
(a) Business support – grant
(b) Safer spaces
(c) General economic measures and support, and local economic business recovery.
(a) Business support – grant
R Pavey, Service Director (Customer Services) reported that the Government had been keen for the quick distribution of the small business support grant and retail, leisure and hospitality grant, which amounted to £29 million - £30 million for the Epping Forest District. The Council had distributed 90 per cent of the grant within two weeks to businesses in the District. A mandatory requirement was that it was to help businesses cover high property costs that could demonstrate a loss of income because of the Covid-19 lockdown. An additional grant of £1.5 million had been received for another 5 per cent of businesses that had not received a grant originally and had been aimed at small businesses in shared offices spaces where they were not the ratepayer, bed and breakfast establishments and some charities. The focus had been on regular market traders with fixed property costs at covered markets where there was daily trading, rather that the District’s open markets one day / a week. There were some discretionary elements within the criteria for the grants that Cabinet had chosen to support. The Council had received 250 applications of which some had been paid a grant, some were still being processed, but some had been turned down. The Council was anticipating an underspend. After the current application phase, the Council might have other options to use the grant money.
Councillor R Bassett asked that as he was the trustee of a community transport charity that provided a service, could the charity apply for a grant as it had fixed property costs in St John’s Road, Epping, and paid its electric utility bills to Essex County Council. The Service Director (Customer Services) advised the charity to submit an online application via the Council’s website.
Councillor J McIvor was appreciative of the exceptional job officers had done in supporting businesses with the initial business grants. He asked where businesses had since ceased trading before Covid-19 but had received grants, would the Council cancel these cheque payments and how would the Council be auditing these payments in relation to fraud? The Service Director replied that the Business Rates Register had been used and a number of cheques had been returned, but work was ongoing on actions against fraud. If the Council became aware of such cases, fraud officers would investigate. This had also instigated a data cleansing exercise as well.
Councillor S Heap asked about small businesses with huge premises, for example at North Weald or Stapleford Abbotts, and did the Council have the discretion to assess applications? The Service Director (Customer Services) replied that the scheme had a cap on the rateable value of premises, which was £51,000. The Government would need to be asked if there was flexibility in phase 2, as it would be auditing the Council on those grants. This might also bring other properties into the scope of the grant, but the Council would have to manage the scope to remain within budget.
Councillor C McCredie asked if grants to traders at Epping market had been considered an option as they had complained to her and if this could be looked into further. The Service Director (Customer Services) replied that local market traders were not in the scope of this phase. In the next phase, the Council would see how much funding was left and then look at other applications.
Councillor J McIvor asked if the Council was keeping a list of businesses that had consistently failed to receive these grants and would this be reported back to the Government. The Service Director (Customer Services) replied that officers were gathering information with the end of the first phase and had reached out to businesses in shared office spaces but he was not aware of any businesses missing out. The Government had stepped in to help with other industries, such as nurseries with free business rates for 2021. The Council was keeping records on this and would liaise and provide feedback to the Government.
(b) Safer spaces
The Interim Assistant Director (Planning Policy and Implementation), A Blom-Cooper, reported that safer spaces had been set up in response to Covid-19 to support the reopening of the high streets and to support active travel. Essex County Council (ECC) had been awarded up to £1.9 million to support this scheme. The Council submitted bids to ECC for Epping and Waltham Abbey but only one bid was forwarded to Central Government. However, ECC had received less than half of the total value of the bids, as many of the ECC schemes put forward had not met the criteria. The monies were with ECC so it was not known what the Council would be able to spend. The extension of pavements (so they were less of a trip hazard) to facilitate market traders and social distancing, planters, cycle racks and lockable bollards were being looked into and would continue to be reviewed by the Council. Looking forward to additional Central Government funding, the Business and Planning Bill was going through Parliament, which would licence tables and chairs on pavements. Therefore, the Council was concentrating on hospitality business areas in Buckhurst Hill, Loughton and Ongar and was evaluating bid costings to submit to Central Government.
Councillor S Murray was pleased to hear this progress but asked on what basis were bids for Epping and Waltham Abbey put forward first, as Loughton was busier? Therefore, what criteria was used for the order of towns in the District and at which meeting was this decided? The Interim Assistant Director replied the Council had to submit the bids very quickly and had looked at schemes that had already been identified in our infrastructure delivery plan, as officers had the evidence to use in the bids.
Cllr J McIvor asked what evidence and information were required to make such an application? Ongar was a failing high street before Covid-19, was there a way that funding could be used for high streets like Ongar which were in need of support? The Interim Assistant Director replied that it depended on what Government criteria was required for the next tranche. Epping had been put forward by ECC as it had best met these criteria but ECC had not received all the funding. The criteria were detailed in a 30-page Government document, the details of which could be supplied to the councillor but she did not know how EEC had chosen the schemes.
Cllr A Patel advised that the Safer Spaces Team held regular meetings and was looking at various schemes that the Government was bringing forward. Officers were working to make high streets safer in relation to social distancing measures with Town Centre Partnerships. The Economic Development Team was carrying out individual surveys of high streets to see which business premises could use pavements and if this would result in any loss of parking spaces.
Councillor S Heap thanked officers for all their work on this, but as 40 per cent of the District population lived in Buckhurst Hill, Chigwell and Loughton, the Council should concentrate on those areas.
Councillor J M Whitehouse asked how much of the £60,000 grant had been spent / remained; what was the initial feedback on the scheme; and what was the measure used about interventions? The Interim Assistant Director replied that no information on the budget had been received from ECC. Not one of the schemes received full funding because of a Government cut in spending. The Council had a live Commonplace website to help identify pinch points in the District and had so far received over 2,000 responses, but only one complaint had referred to loss of parking. If you clicked on the map on the Commonplace website, you could look at the comments reported on a pinch point. A report would be going to Cabinet on 20 July 2020. Councillor J M Whitehouse asked about a qualitative assessment on the change in traffic levels. The Interim Assistant Director replied that traffic levels were back up to pre-Covid-19 levels, which officers would be assessing.
Councillor J McIvor asked which high streets were most at risk on social distancing and therefore, least safe in terms of adequate social distancing? The Interim Assistant Director replied that Epping had posed some challenges, especially as the market had created some pinch points. Ongar had very narrow pavements and the scope for more pavement space was very limited. Pinch points in Loughton were also being investigated.
Cllr A Patel said that for Buckhurst Hill, work was ongoing on assimilating scheme costings on what was feasible and what was already there. The Interim Assistant Director welcomed member interaction on this project and had identified some councillors with whom officers were liaising with already.
Councillor R Bassett remarked that the coronavirus had posed a new situation and officers were working it out, but it all took time and resources were limited.
(c) General economic measures and support, and local economic business recovery
The Partnerships and Economic Development Specialist, J Houston, reported that these were unprecedented economic times. The Council’s economic strategy, agreed before the coronavirus, had showed the District was well placed to cope with an economic contraction, but the impact of Covid-19 on every economic sector could not have been predicted. Officers had distributed the grants quickly. This was a busy period with lots of business meetings especially with business leaders to identify areas where improvements could be made, and attended by the Cabinet Portfolio Holders, Councillors N Bedford and J Philip. Officers had dealt with over 100 callers and signposted many businesses to the immediate grants and other grants.
The Council had met with the Federation of Small Businesses, Town Centre Partnerships and tourism attractions to ensure the Council was reaching out as efficiently as possible, and covered plans on reopening to see where support would be needed. Officers had been conducting research into the Council’s handling of the crisis in relation to what was happening on a national basis and was looking at furloughed jobs and levels of unemployment. Officers were monitoring car park usage and footfall levels as well as checking to see if any Council shop leases were being handed back. The Economic Development Team had been preparing and updating its responsibilities in connection to the Council’s recovery plan. This included initiatives it wanted to bring to Cabinet to help in the District’s recovery, which included hospitality and visitor support, and to kickstart apprenticeships and help unemployment levels. The Government Chancellor made a range of announcements yesterday which officers were evaluating.
On the digital platform front, the Council had managed to bring in some 20 million of investment on the digital infrastructure, which would enable 99 per cent connectivity across the District by the end of next year so that GP surgeries could benefit from ultrafast broadband. The Council received information on the availability of Government grants and would be submitting a bid for a new platform for social exclusion especially digital exclusion. It would also ensure that the Council was best placed to receive its fair share of any future grants from Government, the Department of Works and Pensions and Essex County Council to use for the benefit of the District.
Councillor R Bassett remarked that gyms would be opening up towards the end of July which would restart the leisure industry sector.
(1) That the Business support grant update be noted;
(2) That the Covid-19 Safer Spaces initiative be noted; and
(3) That the General economic measures and support, and local economic business recovery be noted.