2020 is a year like no other in the living memory of any of us. The Covid pandemic has shown that no one person or administrative body has all the answers.
We are now moving into the autumn not sure if there will be a second wave of the virus, a successful vaccine, or whether we will all be back to normal – and as for the economy who knows?
No region has got off scot free. Whilst the South East has not experienced the peaks of infection it has seen significant impacts. East and West Sussex perhaps have had lower rates of infection whilst Kent and Hampshire have suffered above average rates.
In economic terms, Crawley with its huge dependence on Gatwick is clearly suffering as are the parts of the south east closer to Heathrow. Last year on a tour of the port of Southampton I was told there was exponential growth anticipated in the cruise business. This year the cruise liners are moored in Weymouth bay, going nowhere and Southampton airport is a shadow of its former self.
The Port of Dover remains a significant link to the markets of the EU, and whatever the outcome of the Brexit trade deal those lorries must be kept free flowing. It will be the whole country that would suffer otherwise.
All tiers of local government have been seriously impacted by Covid, not just in terms of their finances, but in the ways they deliver their services. Whilst we have very properly thanked the staff of the NHS, I think it is important to thank so many in local government who have kept normal life going, not least the bin collectors.
Now the Government is seeking to impose on us dramatic changes in local government structure and in spatial planning. One of my colleagues described that as like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Of course, both can be improved but is now the right time?
There is talk of “devolution”, but I need to be convinced there is a real intention to properly devolve powers from Westminster and Whitehall, and it certainly must not happen and would not be meaningful without fiscal devolution.
Unfortunately, I see no hint of that- rather someone sat in London with a mutant algorithm dribbling money out to people who will do the Government’s bidding. That is not devolution.
As for planning policy, will it help levelling up nationally to impose huge increases of quick buildouts in the South East with a proposed increase of over 50% of housing targets on already demanding targets for the region. Where is the requirement to provide employment opportunities for new employment patterns?
I wish every success to the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine but see it as the responsibility of South East England Councils (SEEC) to keep reminding the Government that the South East region contributes the second highest net contribution to the Exchequer and must not be taken for granted.
By Cllr Roy Perry, Chairman, South East England Councils