How Northumberland Market Towns can be at heart of our recovery

For shop owners and customers alike, June 15 was an important day in our national recovery effort when non-essential retailers across Northumberland and the whole of England started to reopen. Peter Jackson, Conservative Leader of Northumberland County Council outlines below how our county will reopen for business and recover from the Covid-19 economic shock:  

As the Conservative Leader of Northumberland County Council, I’ve been immensely heartened by the way businesses have responded since the lockdown began.

The technological innovations many businesses have already introduced and the creative ways of trading I’ve seen, such as contactless collection or taking orders by instant messaging, demonstrate that many businesses are ready for the challenges ahead that this return to trading is bringing.

Their dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit will be needed more than ever as we move into the next phase of recovery.

The County Council has worked with businesses and retailers to see them through this challenging time, with a comprehensive package of support to help them deal with the economic impact of the pandemic.

Across Northumberland, we’ve delivered in excess of £85m in the form of grants of up to £25,000 to over 7,600 small and medium-sized businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, as well as business rates relief for the 2020/21 tax year. This comes on top of the support the Government has offered to businesses through our world-leading job retention scheme, the deferral of VAT payments for firms and the measures we’ve taken to safeguard the UK high street against aggressive debt recovery actions during the pandemic.

Now shops have been taking steps to ensure their staff and customers are kept safe – from limiting the number of customers within a shop at one time and helping customers to stay two metres apart wherever possible, to frequently cleaning stock and surfaces and storing returned items before putting them back on the shop floor.

And as our towns start to reopen, I want to reassure you that our support will continue and we are continuing to work with communities to give residents the confidence to return and get back to some form of normality.

Our County Council has led the way in supporting our communities through the crisis and now we are determined to lead the way to making sure that our county is not only safe but starts to thrive again for the benefit of all.

We have maintained all essential services to a high standard throughout, still collecting the bins, cutting the grass and maintaining our towns. We were one of the first to reopen our Waste Recycling Centres and we thank residents for their sensible use of them since then. We reopened our country parks to give people fantastic open spaces to for exercise and recreation. We have reopened most of our car parks across the county now but only after rigorous safety assessments and local consultation. We have reopened many of our toilets but again after detailed risk assessments to support the opening of non-essential shops last week. 

To open our main market towns back up our County Council has been putting in place essential signage to ensure appropriate social distancing. We have had Council staff as local Ambassadors on the street to give advice and reassurance to residents that it is indeed safe to us and support of local Towns once again. Our Council staff have done a brilliant job in making our towns safe again.

Our Conservative County Council is now talking to our local communities to investigate how we can make our towns even safer, how we can bring back local commerce as quickly as possible and how we can make our towns more pedestrian friendly. We have developed exciting plans to improve cycling and walking in our county. Our Council is looking bring forward any improvements at an early stage, but this will be done by looking at the potential of each individual community.

In terms of capital investment in the infrastructure of our towns the length and breadth of our great county I can assure residents that we are still on track with the most ambitious programme Northumberland has ever seen. Major projects are on the go from Berwick to Prudhoe and across to Hexham. We are investing in extra car parking capacity in our towns to tackle issues of capacity.

Not only is the Council with partners bringing forward the £25m Future High Streets Fund plans which will transform Blyth town centre as well as the Heritage Action Zone scheme for Hexham but we are working on significant plans which will support the futures of our towns large and small across the county.

Most transformative of all will be our drive to develop the Northumberland Line rail passenger route to connect and revitalise our many towns in south east Northumberland.  This will be the biggest single investment into our county for decades.

Our County Council is ready and waiting with propositions to invest in our communities and we will bid for all funding opportunities which present themselves whether directly from Government calls for projects, through the North of Tyne CA or through the Borderland Growth Deal.

This week we will publish our clear Recovery Plan for Northumberland and pledge to  enable communities, businesses and local leaders in our towns across Northumberland to work together and draw up ambitious plans to transform their town’s economic growth prospects with a focus on improved transport, broadband connectivity, skills and culture.

Supporting all of our local towns to thrive has always been central to the mission of this Council and this is truer than ever as we start to come out of lockdown. They are an essential part of our county’s DNA.

It is going to be a while before things will feel completely normal. But, as we look ahead, I know that our town centres, the bedrock of our communities, will be at the heart of our local recovery.