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Where next for Brighton & Hove’s economy?

Right now, in a parallel universe, Brighton Festival is drawing to a close, the city’s hotels, bars and restaurants have had a bumper month, shops are busy and everyone is in a good mood. May is a wonderful month to be in Brighton & Hove.

But now, back in the real world, Brighton Festival is a distant memory, hotels, bars and restaurants are empty, many shops are still shut, and everyone is worried – about their health, their loved ones, their job or their business. How on earth do we recover from this?

There are no easy answers, but there are a few things that would make a big difference.  First of all, Brighton & Hove City Council needs to exercise the maximum amount of discretion in allocating Government grants and rates relief. Too many businesses in the city had been deemed ineligible for support when similar businesses in other areas have received it. One of Brighton’s language schools was told they’re ineligible for support because they’re not a tourism business, whereas in other cities language schools had been granted support. Following interventions by Green councillors this situation has now been successfully resolved and the school in question has been granted support; however there are many other businesses that still fall between the cracks that we need to help.

Secondly, commercial landlords need to raise their game. Many businesses in the city have written off 2020 altogether, and are unsure what 2021 holds for them. Will there be a vaccine? Will social distancing continue into 2021? Nobody knows. As a result, many businesses might be closed, or trade at a fraction of their normal income, for at least the next year. If they continue to be charged rent, they will almost certainly face bankruptcy. Some commercial landlords have agreed rent deferrals, but that doesn’t help in the long-term – who can afford to rack up hundreds of thousands of pounds in debts on the promise of an uncertain future? We need landlords to give rent holidays, not deferrals.

And thirdly, we need furloughed staff to be allowed to work if they can safely do so. Whether that involves planning their recovery, delivering a reduced level of service to their customers to keep some cash coming in, or diversifying into new areas of business, we need to allow people the flexibility to do whatever it takes to save their livelihoods without worrying that their safety net will be pulled from underneath them the moment they go back to work.

And as we go back to work, we need to focus on our strengths, look to the future, and work together. What are we good at? Why do people come to Brighton & Hove? What can our city offer that no one else can?

Brighton & Hove is famous for its creativity, its diversity, its cultural scene, and of course the beach, the plethora of independent shops, cafes and restaurants, the nightlife and the South Downs National Park. We also have a vibrant creative industries sector, a very active community and voluntary sector, and two Universities. We need to draw on all of this, and envision what our city can become.

So what kind of city do we want to be? The city’s Economic Strategy lists five aspirations for the future: a growing city, an open city, a talented city, a fair city and a sustainable city. Clearly, when the Economic Strategy was drawn up in 2018 no one had any idea about the current challenges that the city faces. But a time of crisis is also an opportunity: it reminds us of what’s important in life and gives us an opportunity to re-direct our focus and change the way we work.

And by working in partnership we draw on all of our strengths. Brighton & Hove is already very good at collaboration and partnership working, but many of the formal meetings and forums that made this possible have been cancelled or postponed, and most of the places where informal collaboration happened (such as cafes and pubs) are closed. However there is a whole new infrastructure for collaboration that has grown out of the current crisis that can be equally if not more effective. Every street in the city is included in an area-wide Mutual Aid group, and many streets have their own Whatsapp groups. Many of us have built relationships with our neighbours that we never had before. Many of us know a lot more about those close to us than we ever did.

The opportunity for collaboration is huge, and by working in partnership and looking out for each other we can build the city’s economy back up, not to what it was before, but to what we want it to become.

Cllr Tom Druitt represents Regency Ward. He is a member of the council’s Policy & Resources Committee.

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