Universal Credit claims in Lancaster district rose by 80 per cent during Covid pandemic, new council report finds

Jobs and businesses lost during the Covid pandemic along with new opportunities for economic and community ‘wealth-building’ were highlighted at Lancaster City Council’s cabinet meeting this week.

Thursday, 16th September 2021, 12:30 pm
Lancaster is now on the road to recovery after the Covid pandemic. Photo by Tom Morbey

The pandemic’s economic cost was laid bare with data on the social security claimant numbers, business closures across the district and the collapse of city centre visitor numbers.

Universal Credit claims by people in work who faced financial hardship rose by 80 per cent during the pandemic. Out-of-work benefit claims rose by 66 per cent and shopper numbers to Lancaster city centre fell by more than 70 per cent, a cabinet report stated.

Furthermore, 40 businesses in the professional scientific and technical sectors were lost, plus 30 retail and wholesale businesses and 20 firms employing between 20 and 49 people closed.

Since lockdowns ended, ongoing economic challenges include ongoing business losses, impacts on key sectors and supply chains, worker and skills shortages, job losses and unemployment, hesitant customers and erratic visitor numbers, the cabinet report stated.

However, Lancaster City Council was also pro-active during the lockdowns by helping local businesses in many ways, the report emphasised. More than £65m in business grants was distributed by the council, more than 25,000 business enquiries and briefings were serviced or supplied, and a wide range of business information and support was given by the council.

The city council’s website received 5.8m views and its social media engagement rate rose by 74 per cent in the lockdowns, the report added.

Now a Reopening, Recovery and Renewal ‘Framework’ has been published and agreed by the cabinet. The document sets out a starting point to help the council get a more detailed picture of economic and social needs, challenges and opportunities from now over coming years to prioritise its work with businesses, residents and other organisations.

The report has short, medium and long term targets to early 2022 then to 2024 and then 2031. These are described as Reopening, Recovery and Renewal phases.

Reopening priorities to early 2022 include support for tourism, hospitality, accommodation, retail, leisure and culture. A Welcome Back programme, work to revitalise locations, Covid-safe festival and events, and support for tourist destinations, museums and parks are among the immediate needs, the cabinet heard.

Measures to monitor progress on economic recovery will include expanded local supply chains, increasing local start-up businesses and support, and greater local and international trade opportunities and digital innovation.

The medium term Recovery phase includes further jobs safeguarding and creation, skills and training, business resilience and development. Better access to business space, markets and temporary ‘pop-up’ shops are also listed,

Importance is also placed on local supply chain developments, supporting ‘community wealth-building’ initiatives, business development, resilience and investment.

Green councillor Gina Dowding welcomed the framework but called for a clearer focus on green transport. She said: “It talks about green sustainable improvements rather than green sustainable transport. I think we need to look again at the wording.”

But overall she thought it was an ‘excellent’ piece of work which brought together the council’s green ambitions and values with economic measurements.

Labour councillor Erica Lewis asked if more explanation could be given to the phrase ‘community wealth-building’ in the framework.

In some council areas, community wealth-building is a phrase increasingly used. Some councils are attempting to improve local economies and supply chains through procurement decisions. Preston is perhaps an example with the so-called ‘Preston Model’.

However, Lancaster City Council’s leader is a Green, the deputy leader is an Eco-Socialist and the cabinet includes a range of political party representatives, so a range of influences are doubtless represented.

Morecambe Bay Independents councillor Tricia Heath, who introduced the framework, took note of the various comments and said they would be fed into the details.

Longer term Renewal phase proposals include creating a greener, sustainable district. Projects include supporting the new Eden Project North at Morecambe, regenerating Morecambe town centre, regenerating Lancaster’s Canal Quarter, developing the Bailrigg Garden Village, opening up Heysham Gateway for business and to support green and clean industries, maximising ports, docks and waterways, green transport improvements and natural habitat management.

Council officers had recommended the cabinet approve the plan. They said it gave clarity and momentum to help drive the council’s approach to economic recovery. The overall impact of all activities can be monitored. It offers flexibility to allow the council to take account of emerging circumstances and new opportunities, officers stated.