How can we help businesses thrive?

Cllr Danny Beales, cabinet member for investing in communities, culture and an inclusive economy and Cllr Adam Harrison, cabinet member for a sustainable Camden, write:

2020 challenged us all, like few years in our lifetimes. It challenged our communities, high streets and local businesses in Camden. Covid-19 accelerated many of the changes we were already seeing – the rise of home working, challenges to the retail environment, and increased online shopping.

One of the big questions facing us is how to support our businesses and high streets, not just to survive, but thrive after the pandemic. These areas are at the heart of our communities, providing goods, services, jobs, and – especially during the pandemic – sometimes the only friendly faces many who live alone will see.

This Monday from 7pm, we will be discussing the future of our high streets at the full council meeting, which you can watch on the Camden Council YouTube channel. We will reflect on the efforts made last year to support businesses and protect jobs, especially in retail and hospitality. These include turning parking over to space for people to eat outside, very successfully in places like Primrose Hill, South End Green, Charlotte Street and – of course – at the Belsize ‘streatery’, which led the way. This was as well as distributing more than £75m in national support grants to keep our shops, pubs, and cultural venues alive.
Camden implemented other measures quickly, such as extra space to help people pass and to queue outside major stores. We have introduced new cycle parking, 20 new street trees as part of highways projects, and new walking and cycling measures such as zebra crossings and safe cycle lanes to enable us to travel round Camden more safely. All the evidence, and likely your own experience, is that this makes us feel safer and more likely to visit, stay and spend on our high streets.

We need our town centres to be full and vibrant, and so we are working to match empty units to pop-up temporary uses. And we have set up a Digital HighStreets platform to help Camden residents support their local shops online instead of tax-avoiding multinational platforms: Shop local directory - Camden Council

The recession that lies ahead is daunting, not least with the damage that Brexit will also do to businesses. Other threats exist as well, such as the government’s new plans to allow shops and restaurants to convert straight to residential without planning permission, which could break up our much-loved high streets.

Our vision in Camden is different from this deregulated, property-investor free-for-all nightmare. Ours is in line with the new 15-Minute City vision set out by the visionary mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Our commitment is to work together with local businesses, residents and community groups to reshape all our high streets and neighbourhood centres so everything is within close reach – local places to work, play, eat, drink, shop, create and stay, and accessible and welcoming for all.

NHS staff should be first in line

Liz Thomson, Fortis Green Road, Muswell Hill, writes:

With Covid infections exceeding those we saw last spring and 46,000 hospital staff currently off sick with the virus, it surely makes more sense for the government to prioritise all medics and paramedics, plus care workers, above the over-80s in the vaccine queue. Next in line should be teachers and other key workers.

That way we might have a chance of keeping the wheels turning in a country that’s showing every sign of grinding to a halt.

Doctors and nurses have given their all for the better part of a year and have seen colleagues die; so too carers. Put simply, they deserve to be vaccinated as soon as possible. And surely it’s obvious that if they are off sick our hospitals and care homes cannot function and people of all ages will die untreated, of Covid and much besides. Domiciliary care workers, going from house to house, usually by public transport, should also be vaccinated as a matter of urgency – to leave them unprotected exposes both them and those they care for to untold danger.

If teachers were vaccinated, it would be possible to keep schools open without putting teachers themselves at risk from young, often asymptomatic, carriers. Then of course there are other front line workers, not least those who work in supermarkets. For all of them we are once more being enjoined to clap, but we could better show our appreciation by protecting them from Covid.

Prioritising the over-80s makes little sense – they should be asked to shield for a couple of months longer while those who keep the country running take their place in the queue, along with all those whose health conditions make them specifically vulnerable. We are all making sacrifices, schoolchildren and students especially, with those from less affluent families unable to study properly at home.

I have little faith in the government to manage the vaccination programme efficiently. Nor do any of my medic friends – because Britain’s infrastructure has been dismantled and outsourced. The current goal is “13.9 million… offered a vaccine by the middle of February” which, mathematically speaking, should mean that I, in Group 7, would be vaccinated in late March or early April. Yet the online calculator declares that I won’t get called until the second half of June because there are “between 20,515,925 and 23,170,485 people” in front of me. Go figure.

Meanwhile, a cousin who has spent more than a decade as a pharmacist on the Wirral administering flu jabs was turned down when she volunteered her skills – though she was invited to help marshal queues.

Beyond that, the country should be in proper lockdown: no click-and-collect jewellers and other non-essential stores, including coffee shops; no cleaners going from house to house other than to help the truly incapacitated; no driving several miles to meet a friend and go for a walk. Many people have done well out of working from home, and those with well-paid jobs have done well out of furlough, but freelancers, including musicians and actors, struggle. Casual workers can’t afford not to work, which is why so many are reluctant to take a Covid test and turn up sick. If the government can’t find a common sense way to manage the situation the nation’s agony will be prolonged, the damage to health and wealth incalculable.

Britain is world-beating only at infection and death rates which, per capita, matches that of the US. Boris Johnson has redefined what it means to be “exceptional”.

Abacus has rallied during pandemic

Ham & High: The former Hampstead Police Station which Abacus Belsize Primary School want to turn into a schoolThe former Hampstead Police Station which Abacus Belsize Primary School want to turn into a school (Image: Archant)

Darla Hocking, Belsize Park Resident, writes:

Pupils drive into Hampstead to attend school, But Abacus is still walking to get a drive out
2021 may be unpredictable. But one thing I can depend on is the community spirit that exists at Abacus Belsize Primary School.

During the challenging periods when our family needed to quarantine, I have been overwhelmed by the support from Abacus. I received text messages offering to deliver food, kind notes to the door, and cheery messages through various religious holidays. The Abacus community is like one large family that has supported each other through the continual unpredictable times and for this I am thankful.

We suffered the disappointment of the refusal to make the empty building on Rosslyn Hill our permanent home on the last day of the term (December 17). At the time, our family was in quarantine. The timing of the message couldn’t have been worse, coming at the end of a challenging year, and right before a holiday. We received the report later than promised, and questioned why the report couldn’t be delivered weeks earlier or later in the New Year. But, even in the face of this disappointment, we will rise up, we always do.

The truth is the strength of Abacus Belsize Primary School has never been in the future permanent building. It has always been in the staff, and the resilient families. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by this community in the Belsize area. And although it would be nice to walk to school, I’m still happy to walk my three children any distance to the bus collection, just so they can be part of Abacus. How privileged are we to be able to teach our children lessons first hand about perseverance and resilience. We patiently wait for the special day when we get our permanent home.

We look forward to hearing from the many politicians who have promised both publicly and privately to help us secure a permanent home.

Ponds policy still excludes people

Nicky Mayhew, former chair, Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA), writes:

A year on from the launch of the City of London’s 2020 consultation on Heath swimming, I read with interest the response from Anne Fairweather, current chairman of the Hampstead Heath Management and Consultative Committees, to my recent account of this exercise in the Heath & Hampstead Society Newsletter (The Ponds: Still Waters, Deep Trouble). To challenge this rewriting of history, I respectfully make the following points.

I and other swimmers involved remain firmly convinced that the City of London arranged the consultation purely to tick the box marked public accountability. During the “comprehensive review” of swimming on the Heath, it became apparent to us that the corporation had only one destination in mind.

From the point of view of Ms Fairweather and her predecessor, Karina Dostalova, a spanner was thrown in the works when the Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee (which each successively chaired) chose to support the swimmers’ proposed solution to the problem of rising costs and limited revenue instead of the corporation’s. However, this difficulty was soon remedied by the chair (a) refusing to take a formal vote of members of the Consultative Committee, and (b) seeking legal advice to confirm that the Management Committee could take the unprecedented step of disregarding the Consultative Committee’s recommendation. In this way it was decided to double the charges for swimming (and more than double concessionary rates), and to take steps to compel everyone to pay.

Some swimmers still question the City’s moral right to enforce payment for something that historically had been free when the corporation undertook its obligation to preserve the Heath for “the recreation and enjoyment of the public”. However, the law allows this and, throughout the consultation, the swimmers’ representatives made it clear that the majority were willing to pay fair charges (many of us already did so), and that we would work with the City to ensure that everyone understood the need to contribute and to encourage all who could afford it to pay. This would have required some effort on the corporation’s part to introduce clearer signage and better payment mechanisms (such as credit and debit card options, which swimmers have been calling for over years, but which didn’t arrive until autumn 2020).

The Management Committee refused to trial the option preferred by us and its own Consultative Committee, instead resorting to compulsion in a manner that is totally contrary to the long-established ethos of the ponds as places of freedom and equality. The corporation promised to establish a support fund for those unable to afford the charges, but so far there is no sign of this. The extension of concessions in response to swimmer feedback consisted simply of updates to reflect the current benefit system. It is true that, having taken full advantage of Coronavirus restrictions to implement its plans, the corporation was persuaded to provide telephone booking for those unable to use online systems, but they declined to publicise the number (so the KLPA did it for them).

Ms Fairweather cites happy childhood memories of visiting the Ladies’ Pond as her reason for wanting to chair the Heath Management Committee. It is ironic that she has presided over a regime that excludes people who can’t afford the charges, and has generated mistrust and acrimony by rejecting a consensual approach to making the ponds sustainable.