Trowbridge business in lockdown - Part one of a big interview with Wiltshire Council leader Cllr Philip Whitehead

  Posted: 18.11.20 at 16:04 by The Editor

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TROWBRIDGE business is on tenterhooks two weeks into the second lockdown in England. Some small non-essential businesses have moved their work online, some have shut up shop and are sitting it out until December 2 when the lockdown is supposed to end.

But some small businesses have gone to the wall.

While there are Covid-19 grants available from Wiltshire Council, businesses are concerned that the cash they will receive from the authority will not be enough to pay the overheads which will continue to clock-up ahead of a return to work before Christmas.

So, Trowbridge Nub News have gone to the top and put these concerns plus other business issues, particularly the long-awaited Future High Streets Fund announcement, to the leader of Wiltshire Council Cllr Philip Whitehead.

Over the course of the next few days, we will report on this interview, and today we start with the future of business in Trowbridge as it stands now, what is the chance of another lockdown in the New Year and what the potential is for the County Town of Wiltshire.

Here is what Cllr Whitehead had to say.

Market traders in Fore Street, Trowbridge, a day before the current lockdown

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IT is still unclear whether the second Covid-19 lockdown in England will be extended further into December. It probably will not as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared it will 'automatically end on December 2'.

But uncertainty does not help the business community, particularly small to medium sized businesses in Trowbridge, to plan for their short-term futures.

A new Local Restrictions Support Grant scheme has been opened across the county after Wiltshire Council received over £7m of Government funding to support local businesses.

The scheme is aimed at those businesses who had to close their doors due to the lockdown, which started on November 5.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says England will automatically come out of this lockdown on December 2

But, even with this help, companies are struggling, with some actually folding after just managing to get through the first lockdown.

So what is Wiltshire Council doing to give Trowbridge businesses some positivity with two weeks left before the restrictions are due to end?

Cllr Philip Whitehead, leader of Wiltshire Council and a previous owner of two shops which sold kitchens, said he understood entirely what SMEs were going through, having struggled himself in 2008 when the Honda car plant in Swindon went on a three-day week and left his business 75 per cent down in turnover for six months.

Cllr Whitehead said: “I remember going home that Christmas and the only way to describe it was being terrified, absolutely terrified.”

Fortunately, by hook and by crook, Cllr Whitehead's company survived so, speaking from experience, he said: “The last thing any business would have wanted is this second lockdown.

“The best thing to happen to us is get the vaccination out so we can ease the lockdown and manage the people going into hospital through vaccination rather than locking people down.

“What I will say to businesses first of all is make sure you apply for every single grant or bit of money that you can. Don't hesitate. Don't wait. Get on with it and seek help. Talk to our (Wiltshire Council) Wellbeing Hub. It is open seven days a week.

“Get any information and advice you can to support you. Don't lock yourself away and suffer. Especially get money and furlough your staff if you can.

“Beyond that, we are all hoping for the same. I am hoping that all businesses can go through and survive and everything will come back next year and people can carry on trading.”

But Cllr Whitehead admitted: “It has been absolutely terrible for everybody. I do understand that entirely”

While the Government's aim is to get people out of lockdown in England in early December so that businesses in Trowbridge can get some sort of Christmas trading period under their belts, and people in the town will be able to visit their families over the festive period, Covid-19 will still be around.

Cllr Whitehead said further restrictions and lockdowns cannot be ruled out in 2021.

He said: “I will say it clearly, I don't know. I will make that first admission. So this is conjecture. Boris would have preferred not to have a second set of restrictions. I think that is clear. He was in a position where, mainly because of the northern areas, the growth was so great, the numbers were so great, the hospitals were hitting capacity, he had to do something across the country.

“Although we (Wiltshire) were very low, we were still seeing the same levels of increase from a very low base. So we would have got there by December time.

“So when people say it is not fair that they included us, I say it is alright saying that but we would have been there in two, three or four weeks anyway. They had to do something.

“Do I think they will release it so people can have Christmas together and businesses can get a month of trading in? I think the four weeks will give us a drop in infection rates and a drop in infection rates may well get us through to Christmas with a more relaxed approach, allowing businesses to benefit from that as they did in the summer and allowing people to see their loved ones.

“I think that will happen. Do I think there will be another set of restrictions that presses down on us? I think it depends on the speed they can get the vaccinations out. If they can get the vaccinations out pretty quickly, then perhaps not.

“Otherwise, I see us in January going into another set of restrictions. It may be regional. It is all about managing hospital occupation.

“If you can manage hospital occupation in areas by directing vaccination there – so we may see, although we don't want it – vaccination going first to the most hardest hit areas, you might get away with not having a third spell of lockdown.

“If you can't, then there is no choice. You cannot have hospitals hitting capacity.”

Finally, what is Cllr Whitehead's message to the people of Trowbridge and those businesses who are waiting desperately to get back trading and some business men and women, like Cllr Whitehead experienced himself a decade back, unable to sleep at night through worry and anxiety?

He added: “It is not been easy but I think Trowbridge – and Wiltshire – has a stoicism that is brilliant. I think the long-term potential for Trowbridge is superb.

“I think we will see places like Trowbridge actually benefit significantly in the longer term. Covid will have some impacts and so the longer-term impacts will suit the medium-sized towns because we will look at our independent businesses in a much more positive way.

“Because of this lockdown, there is a tendency to buy things online. See if you can get it online or by telephone with your local supplier first because a lot of people are doing Click and Collect.

“Do that in preference to going online and look to see if your local butcher can do it instead of going to the big supermarkets.”

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Tomorrow – The Future High Streets Fund bid for Trowbridge and a big revelation about the town centre.

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