Local: A new dawn for Stockton

Councillor Bob Cook, leader of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, looks back on 2020 and tells North East Times why positives still remain for 2021, despite the ongoing challenges of COVID-19

 

Q: How has the landscape in Stockton changed over the last 12 months due to COVID-19?

A: COVID-19 has completely changed the landscape across the borough and the pandemic has impacted everybody.

Sadly, the people who were most vulnerable before the pandemic are even more vulnerable now. We moved quickly to protect them, establishing the brilliant ‘COVID Community Support Team’, alongside local charity Catalyst.

Over the past months, the team have done everything from food shopping to picking up prescriptions and dog walking and it’s still going strong.

We’re very fortunate to have such a brilliant VCSE sector in the borough and we never take that for granted.

We’ve also seen a significant rise in the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and this is across the whole borough, affecting people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. We’re currently setting up a new employment hub to help people into training and jobs.

Businesses have been hit hard. We have been swift in paying out business grants but the future is still very uncertain and we need assurances from Government that further financial support will be forthcoming for as long as this continues.

The impact on the care sector has been devastating and the staff continue to do a phenomenal job in the most difficult circumstances.

Care homes in the borough have come up with innovative ways to allow visitors, such as White House Care Home’s ‘visitor pod’, which offers a small bit of comfort for residents and their families.

Schools have also been at the forefront and the job that school staff have done – first in providing care for children of key workers and providing education at a time when disruption is a daily event – has been extraordinary.

And of course, we’ve had to adapt ourselves as an organisation, shifting our resources so that we can focus on protecting those most in need at this most difficult of times.

So, in summary, there’s nothing that hasn’t changed in the last 12 months really. We continue to focus our efforts on keeping the infection rate down and keeping our residents safe.

 

Q: How are you as an authority now planning for 2021 and laying the foundations for a successful post-pandemic future – will you be looking to work with central Government for necessary support and funding to achieve your goals?

A: There’s no sugar-coating it – a very difficult recovery lies ahead in 2021 and beyond.

Since day one of the pandemic our focus has been on supporting our most vulnerable residents and our businesses, and that’s still our focus now.

In the coming months, we will be continuing to target help and support to those who need it most.

There’s been serious damage to businesses and the economy and there’s still so much uncertainty to contend with. We will carry on pressing Government for the support our businesses need.

 

 

There’s also uncertainty around our own budgets, with the Government only confirming our financial settlement until the end of the 2021/22 financial year, which makes medium-term planning very difficult.

But despite the uncertainty surrounding the coming months, we remain committed to achieving as many of the objectives set out in our Council Plan as we can, and even with the challenges of the pandemic we are on course to reach 60 per cent of our performance targets for this year, which were set before the pandemic hit.

We’re also pressing ahead with some exciting projects, such as the restoration of the famous old Globe Theatre with great acts such as Paloma Faith – who sold out in a matter of hours – and Jools Holland coming in 2021.

And of course, we’re looking forward to resuming our hugely popular events programme when it is safe to do so. We know how much people enjoy our events and how much they benefit local businesses too.

It’s a long road to recovery, but our staff and partners have proven time and again they are up to any challenge and that gives us hope that we can bounce back.

 

Q: The council last year revealed a “once in a generation” plan to transform Stockton’s high street and surrounding area by creating a riverside park and office development that will open up the town to the River Tees. How is that blueprint progressing as we start 2021 following the effects of COVID-19, and just what sort of impact will your planned changes have on the town, its high street and its economy?

A: We began a public consultation about the future of Stockton town centre to get an idea of the type of things the public would like to see to develop the town and high street by tackling empty shops and opening up the town to the river.

After completing the purchase of the Castlegate Shopping Centre and the Swallow Hotel, we are now progressing with bold plans to demolish both of these buildings to make way for a riverside park and offices.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the decline of large high street names nationally, which only reinforces the need to enact change across our town centres to ensure they are not solely reliant on retail.

There’s been investment in exciting projects like the building of the Hampton by Hilton Hotel and the restoration of the Globe, which is due to open in 2021 and will pull in up to 200,000 visitors a year.

Stockton is being taken in this new direction because shop numbers are falling and it’s these kind of experiences that will draw future generations into the town centre.

In early 2020, the council also asked for the public’s thoughts on future opportunities of development in town centres and high streets in Billingham, Ingleby Barwick, Norton, Thornaby and Yarm. We received more than 1600 responses – all of these are helping to form exciting plans for the future for each of the borough’s towns.

This is a continuation of the changes we have been making in recent years to transform the six town centres into places that people might choose to visit for reasons other than just shopping.

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