We enter 2021 with London in tier four status, uncharted and uncertain waters bringing new challenges for the people who live and make a living here.
The change to tier four was devastating on every level: for residents, families who missed Christmas, young people stranded here and those businesses now struggling to survive.
This message is intended to provide a measure of assurance - that the council is working hard to look after residents and fighting to ensure businesses get the support they need to survive.
Westminster is a huge employer; around 80,000 jobs alone are generated by its restaurants, bars and cafes. As the council with the biggest hospitality sector in the country, we were the first to launch dozens of temporary outdoor dining spaces outside venues as a way of keeping them going. The West End is responsible for one in ten jobs across London with our theatres and galleries also big employers as well as attractions. The West End is also a national hub for the creative industry; that sector which produces TV programmes, films and digital media. Many of those companies are struggling with freelance workers facing hard times.
That is why I am calling on the Chancellor for more help. The current business rates holiday – due to end at the start of April this year – is now clearly outdated in the face of repeated lockdowns. It is simply unrealistic to expect our businesses to shed their financial stabilisers on April 1 and race back to normal operation. We need to see both the business rates holiday extended and a rethink of the Treasury formula which means Westminster’s 39,000 businesses theoretically stand to receive only around £130 each in extra support. That is not even a sticking plaster or a finger in the dyke. If we do not receive significant help, Westminster’s status as a major employer and global symbol of Britain is seriously at risk.
When I became leader nearly a year ago, I promised residents that their priorities would be at the heart of the council’s City for All programme. The pandemic has changed our world, but I have never lost sight of what I pledged – that Westminster is a place where people should have a chance of living in an affordable home, going to a good school, have access to open spaces with clean air, and grow old with support at hand.
Our construction sites will keep on meeting the target of delivering 1,850 affordable homes by 2023. That statistic comes to life when I visit fantastic developments like Ebury Bridge, where a new community is taking root with open space and job opportunities from start-up companies.
I am proud that despite the pandemic, we were able to open our Beachcroft Care Home. This is a state-of-the-art nursing home in Maida Vale with 84 ensuite rooms dedicated to looking after our most vulnerable residents. I was able to visit Beachcroft last year as it began receiving residents, and was struck by its bright, innovative design and lovely gardens – it is a pocket of calm and care in the heart of the capital. One of my previous council roles was looking after adult care, and Beachcroft Care Home is personal for me – it sums up our ambition to be a place where vulnerable people receive the best possible care and can grow old knowing that support is at hand.
For young people, Our City Lions programme has continued to offer opportunity and inspiration – encouraging teenagers to lift their horizons about where they can work and to take advantage of the world-class employers on our doorstep.
Westminster’s schoolchildren, like those across the country, have experienced a uniquely disrupted year. Given that, I am all the prouder of the achievements of our schools and children’s services team. Secondary schools in Westminster have been recognised for having the smallest gap in learning for disadvantaged children in England. Overall our schools did well in this year’s GCSE results with four out of five pupils receiving A*-C in English and maths. There was also a special accolade for the council’s special educational needs/disabilities (SEND) team which received a glowing report from Ofsted.
2021 will be a year in which we take further action in support of our commitment to the environment and tackling climate change. One consequence of empty streets during lockdown is air quality improved dramatically. While I hope to see our streets thriving again, we need to use this opportunity to restrict the return of pollution.
We have already taken significant steps like rolling out a 20mph speed limit on all our roads, a move which makes them safer with a reduced accident rate. The council is also campaigning to improve air quality around schools, create low emissions neighbourhoods, improve energy efficiency and enhance green space.
All of this makes life more pleasant for walkers and cyclists and helps with our campaign to promote active travel.
We have installed thousands of square metres of widened pavements across the City to make walking safer. For cyclists, we have put in 11km of extra cycle lanes and hundreds of bike parking bays. The council is planning for the growth in hybrid and electric cars with more than 550 electronic vehicle (EV) points already installed across the City, and hundreds more on the way. Coupled with this, the council is about to launch an innovative scheme to consolidate the number of van and lorry deliveries.
To help ensure our City’s green trajectory, we are adopting a new environment supplementary planning document (ESPD) which will ensure that new developments - and where applicable refurbished buildings – cut down on resources and the emissions they produce. As four-fifths of emissions in the City come from buildings, I want to ensure that sustainability is in the DNA of our planning process.
Away from the City for All priorities, we will keep working with central Government and the NHS to roll out the vaccination programme and promote social distancing. The council stands ready to provide help wherever needed.
In a year marked by hardship, I would like to inject a brighter note. I was humbled by the way Westminster residents from all walks of life came forward to volunteer to help each other as the pandemic took hold. In a matter of weeks, we raised a standing army of more than 3,000 people as part of the Westminster Connects initiative who made meals, ferried shopping bags, sewed masks and packed hampers to help the shielding and vulnerable. Westminster Connects is up and running at the moment, and it will keep doing this fantastic work as long as it is needed.
Like you, I hope this is the year we turn a decisive corner in the Coronavirus outbreak and embark on the road to recovery.
One early piece of good news for 2021 is the launch of our arts festival, Inside Out. This is a major partnership with the most famous theatres and galleries in London to put a sample of their work on the street for everyone to enjoy. While this event will only go ahead when it is safe for people to return to the City, I believe it will be a fantastic way of showcasing our cultural institutions.
Our residents, businesses and partners can be confident of continuity with a strong and experienced team in place. This is a council committed to delivery, and you will see us make good on our pledges to provide a City for All.
With my very best wishes for the New Year.
Cllr Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council.