Covid-19: Recovery of Central London Businesses

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:13 am on 22nd June 2021.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London) 11:13 am, 22nd June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken on securing this really important debate. I thank her for all the work that she is doing to engage with businesses and ensure that their voices are heard in this place and across London through the Mayor, the Greater London Authority and all the boroughs. It is so important that, as she says, we work together really constructively in this area, because that is the only way we will bounce back.

As my hon. Friend says, London normally bounces back every time. It normally leads the charge in the UK for bouncing back from adversity and every recession. I have no doubt that the same will be true this time, but rather than leading the way, it is clear from the feedback we are getting from the cultural and hospitality sectors that London is lagging behind, and my hon. Friend outlined some of the reasons why.

London is three times the size of the next biggest European city, never mind UK cities, so it has a centre of gravity that is mainly based on public transport. We must give people the confidence to come back in, as my hon. Friend says, and enjoy the benefits of being in the workplace and what London has to offer. It goes beyond confidence: I describe it as confidence and joy. We can get people back in the first time, but if things are too onerous and difficult in hospitality terms, they will perhaps go back and rely on a ready meal and a bottle of wine in their back garden. That might be great every now and again, but it is the last thing we want if we are to help London’s recovery and ensure that it remains the greatest city in the world in which to live, work and bring up a family, and to really enjoy.

I have lived on the outskirts of London for the best part of 30 years, and the greatest thing about it is that I can enjoy the green spaces and schools in outer London, and raise a family there, but I have London on my doorstep. As well as the benefits of the suburbs, I have the benefits of the city—the theatres, the London Eye, as Florence Eshalomi said, and the restaurants that rival anything available elsewhere in the world. We can go around the world within the few square miles of Greater London. That is so important.

When we talk to business that are encouraging people—or not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said—back into their workplaces, we have to remind them that London and the businesses that serve people in their workplaces cannot sit there and wait. They cannot survive on fresh air. They cannot be there for people if people do not come back and use them. That is why it is important that we encourage people to come back into London. London generates 25% of the GDP of the entire country, and the west end generates 4% of the country’s gross value added—that is before we get to the City and Canary Wharf. That is testament to the work of my hon. Friend and all the people she engages with; it is important that we celebrate and showcase it.

My hon. Friend talked about business rates. Clearly, London has a particular issue because of the cost of property here, and the business rates that follow. She will be aware—she referenced this—that we have a fundamental review, which is due to report back in October. I hope it is as fundamental as it suggests. My hon. Friend is right that, due to property costs, business rates particularly affect London.

One of the things that I discovered as I was working through the covid support measures that we were putting in place is that the grant system—seemingly the easiest system to deliver—still had its challenges. It was seemingly the easiest because local authorities across the country knew exactly who qualified, because in the first tranche of grants they knew which retailers, who in the hospitality sector and which small businesses were getting small business rates relief. However, they did not have the bank account details or know who to pay it to. The challenges were about fundamental things such as that. Sometimes the local authority’s relationship with its local businesses was not quite as close as it might have liked and expected. We have had to work through all those unintended consequences at pace over the past year, which led to me speaking to something like 112 local authorities across the country to see what more we could do to help them along.

In London, there was the grant scheme. I am pleased that with all these schemes, we were able to flex, following representations from colleagues such as my hon. Friend, to iron out some of the unintended consequences. Indeed, the early discretionary grants were based on the residents living in those areas. That obviously affected my hon. Friend’s constituency. There are not that many people living in the City of London, but there are a lot of businesses. That was an unintended consequence that we were able to correct in later iterations of the discretionary grants. That is testament to the fact that we have been able to flex and work in what were, frankly, completely unprecedented times. We have had to work at pace to change and develop the support accordingly, and we will continue to do that.

We have put in £352 billion to date—it is £407 billion when the various types of fiscal support are included, with the following year to come. As a small-government, free-market Conservative, having just made one of the biggest interventions since the second world war, that gives me 407 billion reasons why we have to get the next bit right. Having protected those jobs, businesses and the spirit of London, we have to make sure that we keep those gains.