Report by Clair Bell, Ashford Borough Council ward member for Upper Weald, May 2020

Council meetings were all suspended when lockdown started with staff and councillors are working from home wherever possible.  Over the weeks, video conferencing technology has increasingly enabled internal meetings to take place and some meetings in public.  Two Planning Committee meetings have been held via Microsoft Teams Live Events.  The first of these saw an application to transform the derelict Newtown Railway Works into a global film and TV hub receive councillors’ approval.  The £250m project includes studios, hotel, serviced apartments, conferencing facility and quality homes.  Thousands of jobs are expected to be created, providing a boost to the economy of the town and the wider borough.

A further Planning Committee will be held on 20th May, and a Cabinet meeting on 28th May.  Joining details will be available on the Council’s website.

Service delivery has inevitably changed in some areas but I am pleased that the household waste and recycling collections have continued uninterrupted.  This service is regarded as a top priority for the Council but delivery has been very challenging as a result staff absence.  Friday 15th May sees the re-opening of the Household Waste Recycling Centres, including Cobbs Wood in Ashford.  To protect the staff and avoid large queues, there will be a booking system and certain restrictions in place.  Details are available at https://www.kent.gov.uk/waste-planning-and-land/rubbish-and-recycling/visiting-a-hwrc-during-coronavirus

Ashford Borough Council is administering the Government’s Business Support Grant Scheme. More than £22 million has so far been paid out to over 1900 businesses. Contrary to reports in the media, grants have been paid to 88% of the pubs in Ashford borough who are eligible for the grants, and we are encouraging the remaining pubs and indeed all businesses to apply as soon as possible.

The Council continues to support the Kent and Medway Growth Hub Hotline which is providing support to business owners across the county.

Ashford Borough Council has awarded £17,300 worth of emergency grants to 13 not-for-profit groups based in the borough who need resilience help, or funding to enable them to support the people in the borough who need it the most at this critical time.  Recipients of the emergency grants include Ashford Volunteer Centre, Tenterden Social Hub and Pilgrims Hospices, who have received £3,000 to enable them to provide extra beds in the Ashford hospice, as well as cover some of the losses from their planned fundraising activities in the borough.

The council has launched its own Voluntary Emergency Response Appeal (VERA) to provide support to those in need. Donations have reached £8,500, not far short of our target of £10,000. Ashford Response Depot has been operating throughout the lockdown, preparing and delivering food parcels with the help of volunteers, Kent Fire & Rescue and council staff including the Aspire team, to people on the shielded list and anyone else who needs food and supplies of household items.  The ABC website has a map and list of local volunteer groups throughout the borough. https://www.ashford.gov.uk/your-community/emergency-planning/health-and-pandemics/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-help-for-community-groups/list-of-voluntary-and-community-groups/

There is a new section of the ABC website dedicated to Coronavirus which has detailed information for individuals, families, community groups and businesses on where to get help. https://www.ashford.gov.uk/your-community/emergency-planning/health-and-pandemics/coronavirus-covid-19/

Recovery plans are underway, and services will gradually resume in line with government guidance on social distancing etc. It is interesting to see how, in the midst of a crisis and of course, tragic circumstances for some, new ways of working are emerging, an element of which will hopefully be carried forward in future, to the benefit of residents, employees and the environment.

As elsewhere, the cost of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic is having an impact on the Council’s finances.  Income from parking charges, for example, has been particularly affected, estimated to be down from an expected £2.4 million to £1.2 million for the year.  ABC has received just over £1.3 million so far from central government to help mitigate the loss of income incurred.  Local authorities, through their representative bodies continue to lobby for additional support.  But there are many calls on government during this challenging time and we shall have to look very carefully at how we manage our budget and shape our services in the future.

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