The 31st January 2020 began, as it often does, with urgent Council business. I was visiting the Network Rail Operating Centre in York, with other Council leaders from North Yorkshire and Leeds, to discuss rail investment in our region with the Secretary of State for Transport.
Immediately after the visit, I noticed a missed call from Sharon Sholtz, the Council’s Director of Public Health, which at the time was unexpected. On ringing back, I arranged to immediately walk into the Council’s offices to be briefed on what would soon to become a pandemic that would change our lives.
It is incredible to think that a year has passed since the first cases of Coronavirus were declared in our city and efforts to combat a virus, we knew nothing about, began. Whilst we still have some way to go in overcoming this unprecedented challenge, residents, businesses, and communities have time and time again showed the absolute best of our city. From the very beginning of this crisis, York has worked together to save lives and livelihoods.
I am grateful to all key workers, partners and council staff who have gone above and beyond to support our local communities and businesses. From the outset of the pandemic, the council has acted swiftly to support local businesses. From processing over £140 million in financial grant and relief support to businesses heavily impacted by the pandemic, to setting up our own £1 million emergency fund to help those businesses who missed out on Government grants.
The hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors continue to be hit hardest by the crisis. Telling residents, tourists, and shoppers to stay clear of our beautiful city is something I had never imagined I would have to do. Whilst this has been a uniquely challenging year for York’s economy, there is some optimism that York has performed well when compared to other cities across the country. Nonetheless, we know that more support is needed for local businesses and residents, and we will continue to call on the Government to step up and answer our calls for comprehensive support, including boosting Universal Credit, extending the VAT cut, Business Rates relief and the furlough scheme, as well as introducing plans for long-term investment.
Just like the many businesses and organisations facing financial difficulties, councils continue to face unprecedented financial pressures as a result of the pandemic. In March, Government ministers promised to stand behind councils and cover the cost that the pandemic was expected to bring on to local services. Since that promise was made, the Government have failed to provide all the necessary support required. If the Government fails to act decisively, there is a risk that their policies would see Yorkshire ‘level down’, as our economies and residents suffer in the aftermath of the crisis. Government must put local government on a strong, sustainable financial footing, ready for the major challenges ahead.
Everyone who lives and works in York knows there are opportunities unique to our city that other cities and towns would envy. From our city’s history and culture, to utilising the expertise in the biotech industry, to seizing the once in a lifetime regeneration opportunity in York Central, it is clear that York is well placed to build back better. The Council cannot unlock all these opportunities alone and that is why we continue to call on the Government to ‘Back York’ and deliver on their promises of adequate financial support to councils to ensure that York can build back better.
We must use the recovery work to address pre-existing challenges with the city’s economy, and to improve outcomes for our residents through strengthening our key sectors, addressing inequality and creating a more resilient and inclusive economy for the future.
Throughout this crisis, it’s been inspiring to see the resilience and compassion of communities across York. With thousands of volunteers coming forward to support one another, whether that be delivering food and medicine, making phone calls or simply being there for a neighbour in need. Volunteers across the city have given more than 23,000 hours of their own time to help others. The work of staff and volunteers across York’s extensive voluntary and community sector have been a lifeline to many of our most vulnerable residents. As we now look to build back better, we are committed on building on the successes of local community hubs and other local community-based schemes to further benefit our city.
The pandemic has impacted on every aspect of life in our city. The professional and personal sacrifices do, however, seem small when compared to those made by our healthcare staff and frontline key workers. The best way we can say our collective thanks for their ongoing efforts is to follow the health guidance and stay at home where we can.
With a year passed and the vaccine rollout now underway, there is hope that we can soon come out the other end of this crisis. In the meantime, we must continue to meet this challenge head on and continue to demonstrate the resolve that York has already shown in the face of adversity.
* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.