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Leader provides latest update from Council

Posted on 6 May 2020

It has been a long seven weeks since lockdown was introduced for us all back at end of the March.

 Our physical and mental wellbeing is being tested by a set of circumstances, surrounded in so much uncertainty, that are completely alien to us.

 Over the last few weeks I have used this column to highlight the outstanding work that is being carried out by Council staff, the NHS and all our key workers during this crisis. This week I want to turn to the economy.

 Like us citizens, much of the economy is in lockdown. Whilst at the start some predicted a “V shaped” recession, where economic output would fall sharply in this quarter but then almost immediately recover as the lockdown eased, the reality is much more grave.

The economy cannot be turned on and off like a tap. The economic impact on the lockdown will be felt for some time to come. A range of economic experts, including the Office for Budget Responsibility, are forecasting a 35% fall in GDP and a 10% increase in unemployment, something we have started to see with the huge surge in universal credit claims.

 This is going to be a global recession and there is no point sugar-coating the reality of the situation locally. The North Ayrshire economy – despite some strengths – was fragile even before the current crisis, with levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality above the Scottish average.

 The performance of our local economy isn’t just about the business base itself. On the day we signed the heads of terms for the Ayrshire Growth Deal I made it clear that an inclusive Ayrshire economy must serve the people of Ayrshire, not the other way around. That’s why, whilst our ongoing priority is to support communities through the virus, we have started to think about a local economic recovery plan.

 We will be starting that process from a strong starting position. Our Business Team do a brilliant job in supporting local firms and have continued to do during this crisis. They have been working tirelessly over recent weeks, offering advice and support to local businesses. They have, alongside colleagues in finance, already helped process around 1300 applications for small business grants with almost £14 million distributed to local firms. That has been a huge undertaking and they hope to complete all the applications in the coming days. We also hope the new Self-Employed Hardship Grants will provide much-needed financial support to those who have recently become self-employed, a group excluded from earlier support packages.

 But these are emergency, short-term measures of support to help the economy through the current lockdown. Beyond the immediate crisis there is a need to build a new economy.

 We cannot return to business as normal, especially when business as normal did not work for North Ayrshire pre-Covid-19 and certainly will not work for us post it.

 From day one as council leader, I made clear that things had to change. North Ayrshire, and Ayrshire as a region, has not recovered from the deindustrialstion of the 1980’s, which saw the loss of many big employers in our area such as ICI.

 Since then we’ve chartered the same economic course as the rest of the country, chasing inward investment and hoping that economic growth would trickle down and benefit people who live in communities like ours. All that happened was the economic divide between affluent cities like London and Edinburgh and areas like ours in the West Coast of Scotland, as well as areas across the North of England, only grew deeper. It’s an economic model that has left us with the levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality that I referenced earlier.

 That’s why, before this pandemic, North Ayrshire Council, was at the forefront of new economic thinking. And that thinking is going to be even more important than ever post Covid-19.

 Community Wealth Building (CWB) always had the potential to transform our local economy. Essentially CWB is about working in partnership with communities and businesses to build a more resilient economy that works for local people, which supports fair work, encourages local spend by public bodies, uses the land and property the public sector owns for the common good, and supports new ownership models such as co-operatives, all of which helps to keep the wealth generated local.

 CWB will now be the cornerstone of our economic recovery plan and we are going to launch our CWB Strategy in the next few weeks to keep progressing with this exciting agenda. We will be using social media to try and explain how CWB works and we’ll also be doing a live launch on Facebook, something I’ll speaking about it in depth in the coming weeks.

 We’ve already made progress on CWB in recent months – independent reports have backed this up – so I will to not let all that work slide. It’s going to be a long road ahead. Things might look bleak just now but I am determined that we will come out of this with a fairer, more inclusive and prosperous North Ayrshire for all.