My Lords, there has been regular and substantive contact between Ministers and the Local Government Association during the Covid-19 emergency. A ministerial-led economic recovery working group has been established, made up of local government leaders from the LGA and including several metro mayors and local enterprise partnership chairs, to help inform the Government’s plans for economic recovery. The Government continue to work closely with local leaders to restart the economy and move into recovery.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I urge the Government to include representation from the English regions, in addition to London, in future COBRA meetings on Covid. I also urge the Government to ensure that, after a decade of cuts, local authorities have the resources they need to play their crucial role in our economic recovery in the future.
My Lords, attendance at COBRA is on an issue and topic basis, as opposed to a standing membership. On supporting local economies, it has to be noted that £27 billion has been spent to support local areas, including £10.7 billion that has been paid out to 819,000 business properties. There are many other examples of government support and that will continue as we move into recovery.
My Lords, I declare my registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our high streets and town centres were in crisis. There is a real fear that, even when it is safe to do so, many will never recover. What work are the Minister and his department doing with local government to develop a package of measures to get our high streets back on their feet and, when safe, encourage the public to use them?
My Lords, the high street is the very heart of a local economy and a number of measures have been taken by the department. The places, urban centres and green spaces guidance which has been issued will help operators and owners on the high street and in our town centres. In addition, on 25 May the Government established a £50 million Reopening High Streets Safely Fund, as well as enabling an additional £6.1 million of funding for business improvement districts in high streets and town centres.
I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. What discussions have taken place about reviewing business rates, so that large online retail companies, which perhaps have no actual shops and many of which pay relatively small amounts of tax, do not have an unfair advantage over our small shops in our high streets which are under threat at the moment?
The most important measure that has taken place during this pandemic is the deferral of business rates, and that is a significant measure to support businesses. I will have to write to the right reverend Prelate about the specifics on the review of business rates.
My Lords, it is critical that businesses are included in the decision-making around reviving local economies. In my city of Leicester, many businesses have fallen through the cracks because of poor communication from the council on the massive funding packages the Government have provided for businesses. Will my noble friend assure the business community that it will be closely involved in the recovery plans and that councils must demonstrate that what they are doing is open and transparent?
My Lords, my noble friend makes the important point that, in any economic recovery, businesses will need to transform themselves and respond to the pandemic. It is fair to say that, when we looked at supporting the reopening of high streets, we engaged with businesses as well as the Association of Town and City Management. It is important to get all the stakeholders around the table so that guidance is appropriate and the support measures adequate.
My Lords, the response to lockdown has shown that, where a full range of digital tools is available, people and businesses can locate almost anywhere. This could be transformative for rural economies, so will the Minister commit that, when we get details of the shared prosperity fund, there will be a dedicated stream for rural areas that could work alongside new funds outlined in the Agriculture Bill?
My Lords, will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to North Yorkshire County Council and the close partnership it has formed with the local LEP to ensure that local businesses are able to access the loans, funds and grants that the Government are so generously operating at this time? I invite him to press the case for recognition of rurality and the particular plight of micro-businesses in rural areas being able to access these funds—a not dissimilar question to that asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market.
My noble friend raises an important point: support for the economy needs to include those micro-businesses in rural areas. The figures and support mechanisms indicate that a number of businesses have received support, whether it is by grant or by business premises rates deferral, but we will look specifically into those measures as well so that we support all businesses during this pandemic.
My Lords, technological innovation is key in this interconnected world. I follow others in their questioning; however, the Government’s future fund appears more likely to favour larger enterprises, with SMEs possibly left behind. Will the Minister consider what role economic development departments in local authorities could play in allowing smaller businesses to benefit, thus promoting a more localised approach to economic recovery?
My Lords, it should be noted that so far the grant scheme has gone to some 804,000 business premises. The spread of the economy for those who are self-employed, as well as small businesses, is quite considerable at this stage. I know, as a former local authority leader, that economic development is very important, not just for large businesses but for the small and medium-sized enterprises that are the backbone of this economy.
While co-ordination between local and national government is essential for our recovery, are the Government also looking to be part of the European Union’s €750 billion stimulus and recovery package, which, as the Minister will know, has a regional and local dimension?
My Lords, I am not in a position to answer that directly. I know that we are moving towards establishing a free trade agreement and a deal with our European Union counterparts, as we are leaving the EU. I will write to the noble Baroness on that specific matter.
My Lords, I too declare an interest as a vice-president of the LGA. Local government has a key role to play in the provision of cultural services, including museums, art galleries and theatres. All these play an important part in the recovery of the economy post Covid-19 and in the mental well-being of our population. What plans do the Government have to support councils to help them reopen these vital facilities?
It is critical to support our cultural institutions, our museums and theatres and also the people who keep those places running. Many of them are self-employed, and access to funding has been granted to many people who are self-employed as well as through the furlough scheme. On the specifics, I am sure this will feature in the local government settlement that will be finalised in the next month or so.
My Lords, while I recognise the importance of regions and local authorities in England towards the recovery of the United Kingdom economy, can the Minister confirm that there will also be consultations with the three devolved states in the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—which can contribute to the overall recovery of the United Kingdom economy?