Initiative members in Swindon logged on to Zoom last week for their regular catch up with local MPs Robert Buckland and Justin Tomlinson and Swindon Borough Council Leader Cllr David Renard. Needless to say, there was plenty to discuss since we held our last meeting in March at Arkells Brewery just before the lockdown.
North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson - a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions - described how his department had been working at speed to cope with the surge in demand for its services as a result of coronavirus.
In the space of just a few months, the UK has gone from record employment into unprecedented and challenging economic times. With over 2m new claimants for Universal Credit, this was a huge operational challenge – but whether Universal Credit, or any of the wider Welfare support the systems had coped with an additional £6.5bn worth of support being provided.
The North Swindon MP also spoke about how DWP is gearing up to deliver some of the measures Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in his Summer Economic Update to help create jobs for young people and get people back into work as lockdown begins to ease.
Mr Tomlinson also expressed a cautiously optimistic outlook for the UK economy, before issuing a rallying cry to business leaders to keep up the good work and support local initiatives to enhance Swindon’s reputation as a great place for investors.
Rt Hon. Robert Buckland QC MP for South Swindon was next to address Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative members.
Underlining the massive cross departmental effort to get to grips with the coronavirus crisis, Mr Buckland remarked that although our last meeting was 4 months ago “it feels like 4 years.” Mr Buckland went on to describe the scale of efforts to protect jobs (9.5m jobs saved through the coronavirus job retention scheme) and the scale of financial support given to UK businesses (more than £64bn in loans have been administered since April). Furthermore, due to this role as Lord Chancellor he paid tribute to Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service for manging to work remotely throughout the lockdown – a move which was unprecedented across Western Europe
Turning attention to local matters, he addressed high profile retail casualties in Swindon and suggested that encouraging people back on to transport and into town centres would help to protect jobs on the high street. He reassured Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative members, many of whom have businesses located in Swindon town centre, that support will be put in place by government to enable this.
Finally, Mr Buckland expressed hope that life in Swindon and the rest of the country will increasingly look like it used to by October, but warned that this would be predicated on the ability of government to “apply the handbrake” where appropriate to stem any localised outbreaks of COVID-19. That being so, new powers are to be awarded to local authorities to make local decisions about lockdown restrictions.
On this subject Cllr David Renard shared details of Swindon Borough Council’s newly approved COVID-19 recovery and local outbreak management plans to enable the town to bounce back economically from the crisis and respond swiftly to any localised outbreaks should they occur. Cllr Renard also outlined the various bids to Government that have been made over recent weeks, with further ones to be submitted.
A lively questions and answers session followed, with members Nick Capstick from the White Horse Federation and Rob Gillespie of Impact Planning making suggestions regarding the formation of 2 special interest groups made up of Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative members to help take the town’s economic recovery agenda forward. These would cover Digital skills and the digital divide with the other concentrating on planning and infrastructure with the public and private sectors working closely together.