Council Given Fund To Maintain Social Distancing

Shops selling clothes, shoes, toys, furniture, books and electronics; plus tailors, auction houses, photography studios and indoor markets will all be permitted to reopen on 15th June, subject to completing a prior ‘risk assessment’ that guards adequately against Covid-19 transmission between workers and customers. This reopening date is provisional, dependent on five government tests being met and, at the time of going to press, there were still suggestions from some major shops that they are not going to meet this timetable. 

Most will, however. Primark, for instance, who were previously quoted on the BBC news website as intending to stay closed until “convinced that it is safe and right” to reopen, confirmed yesterday that they will be opening all 153 stores in England on the first available date, having implemented a series of hygiene measures: there will be hand sanitiser stations, perspex screens at tills, and extra cleaning of high frequency touch points; masks and gloves are “being made available to all employees”. 

In the meantime, on 24th May, High Streets Minister Simon Clarke announced the establishment of a new £50m Reopening High Streets Safely Fund for councils across the country “to support their local high streets get safely back to business”. The source is the European Regional Development Fund. It is said to be additional to all other subsidies currently being dispensed from central government, and has been offered on a per capita basis: thus Hastings Borough Council (HBC) is in line to receive a share of just over £82,000. The money was intended to be available by 1st June. 

Councils are not allowed to spend their allocation on direct financial support to businesses to make adaptations to premises, purchase protective equipment, nor offset wages or other operating costs. Rather, they have been directed to intervene in guiding movement through areas of high footfall such as transport hubs, high streets, shopping centres, parks and promenades, with a view to the maintenance of social distancing and avoidance of conflict. A range of practical safety measures is expected, including temporary signs, street markings and barriers. 

Councils will also be able to use their funding allocation to develop local marketing campaigns to explain the changes to the public and “reassure them that their high streets and other commercial areas are safe”.

HBC seems somewhat nonplussed both by the suddenness of the allocation and by its limited application. Council leader Kim Forward said: “As we enter this new phase of shops reopening, our priority will be, as it has been throughout this pandemic, the safety of our residents. Although we are grateful for any funding we receive to help our town recover from this crisis, especially given our challenging financial position, this money won’t go very far across all of our shopping areas to help support the reopening of our local businesses and high streets.

“It is also unfortunate that there are some rather rigid and limiting rules about what the money can and can’t be used for, and a lot of bureaucracy and form-filling conditions normally only seen with schemes of millions of pounds. We will do all we can to make the money go as far as possible to help make our high streets as safe as they can be.

“The first we heard about this scheme was on Sunday, during a bank holiday weekend, so we are working to understand the guidance and consider how best to use this fund. It is an example of the additional unplanned work that we are having to undertake whilst keeping our services running, protecting residents, supporting businesses and taking care of our staff.”

Local Conservative councillors in Hastings have described the extra funding that is being received from central government as “very useful” and “timely”. However, as reported elsewhere in our news coverage, they criticise the refusal to reopen public toilets and other amenities.

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