Our Chief Executive, Graham Fisher, writes about how the challenges of the last few months gives us the opportunity to come back stronger.
Like many organisations, we have faced enormous challenges since COVID-19 began to dominate our lives. The financial impact on the Foundation has been immediate, very significant and likely to be long lasting.
We are realistic and don’t expect that income to return quickly. Despite our efforts, many of our commercial tenants face a real knife-edge in terms of business viability and paying their rent and, with other outgoings, it is a real struggle.
We are trying to respond positively to those challenges, building stronger relationships with tenants, being creative in coming up with solutions, and I am confident many will survive and ultimately thrive. Sadly, some won’t and that will be huge loss for the whole community.
Alongside that we need to make sure we respond to the changing way people work and what they need from the buildings we own. We need to adapt and change both as a landlord and as a local economic anchor and that is why we are exploring more collaboration spaces, co-working space and network creation. This will also help nurture some of the younger entrepreneurs who have recognised opportunities in this time of crisis and are looking to set up new ventures. Seeing these small green shoots emerge gives us optimism for the future.
Financial impact of COVID-19
Since March, the Foundation has taken some very difficult decisions. That fall in income meant that we had to make £2.5m savings, about half of which is staff costs. By the end of October some 32 of our colleagues will have lost their jobs and many of our community services such as the invaluable community transport service and Ernest Gardiner Treatment Centre will permanently close. While it is heartening to learn that many of them have been successful in getting new roles, it has been an enormously worrying time for them. We know many others locally and across the country face similar problems. To illustrate this, youth unemployment in Letchworth is already above the national average. As we turn our attention to our future strategy, we recognise that despite our diminished financial capacity we will need to find ways to use our resources. For example, we can use our grants programme to find ways to mitigate the impact of job losses and falling incomes for local families.
We already have a track record of doing this with our support and funding to tackle food poverty. We recently increased our grant funding to North Herts Citizens Advice to support local households. This funding will help them to become more financially resilient and reduce the impact of the poverty premium and the injustice of extra costs low income households face because of lack of credit or paying by cash. Increasing poverty and inequality has a profound impact on people’s lives and we are committed to play a role in tackling that.
An inspiring community response
We also want to build on the inspiring community action that our Community Response Team triggered during the lockdown. It has been heart-warming to be part of a real grass roots community movement in Letchworth that mobilised to support many vulnerable and isolated people. The social and personal impact of COVID-19 will continue for some time – increasing anxiety, financial pressures, loneliness and lost learning.
All these issues are growing across our community and it’s within and from those communities and neighbourhoods that real change will happen. If we can nurture more local neighbourhood action to support people facing these challenges over the coming months, then we will begin to see a positive legacy from COVID-19. So, if you have a burning idea that you think will make a difference to your community please let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Supporting our high street
Times are undoubtedly tough but there are also positive changes emerging. Some of our local retailers have faced the challenges of lockdown head on and created new online offers or diversified their products and range. We featured some of these retailers in our business blog series over the last few months.
The importance of shopping local has never been greater and as more people are now working from home there are more reasons for them to shop locally. Looking at national data, if each Letchworth commuter who is now home working just spent an extra £10 a week in the town centre that would generate £36K per week for the local economy. Over a typical working year that’s an incredible £1.5m.
We are delighted to see the Letchworth BID champion that message through its Shop Local and Lunch Local campaigns and we are keen to support these initiatives going forward. The Foundation itself will play more of a role in doing that – buying local across our venues and facilities.
Local economic development & inward investment
Innovation, adaptation and strong networks mark out other local businesses who have played a crucial role in a variety way over recent months. The pandemic has reinforced our belief in the importance of local economic development, not just in the town centre but more widely across the industrial and commercial area. We believe we can play a role in that area, supporting new enterprise and building stronger local networks.
The Foundation is also adapting to thinking differently about how we undertake some of our activities. Our recent success in securing Arts Council funding for the Garden City Collection and Broadway Gallery has confirmed the importance of attracting more external funding and investment into Letchworth to leverage the investments that we can make. We just won’t be able to operate without that type of investment going forward, and the same is true of many other local organisations. How we can help attract more investment into the town will be a key priority for us going forwards.
Throughout all this turmoil some core garden city features have come again to the fore. Many people have told us how important the Greenway has been to them during this difficult time and we want to continue to find ways to get more and more people using the Greenway, enjoying the outdoors and getting active.
Building pride in our town
Recognising and sharing what’s special about Letchworth is at the heart of our heritage story. We feel strongly that that engenders pride and identity about life here and that’s why will remain committed to making sure every child in Letchworth knows what’s special about this place as we move forward and we will continue to invest in helping every child in Letchworth have a good start to life.
COVID-19 has also shone a powerful spotlight on the importance of housing and the effect that good quality housing has on wellbeing and simplistically controlling transmission of virus.
These are not dissimilar to the challenges of Victorian urban living Howard himself was rallying against and which led to the creation of the Garden City. Our commitment to developing new housing in the town, particularly affordable housing, is reinvigorated, and we must press on to build more places for people to enjoy a good and healthy life. I think that is the essence of Letchworth Garden City.
If we can do all this, and we are committed to doing so, I believe we can bounce back better.