London Mayor Sadiq Khan has written to Boris Johnson’s government, saying it must provide an urgent and comprehensive package of financial support for restaurants and other businesses in the West End of the capital. Khan said that central London faced a “real existential threat” from the COVID-19 pandemic, such has been its impact on office workers, tourism, and the need for social distancing.
In the letter, which comes after a number of high-profile restaurateurs co-signed a series of demands drafted by St. John owner Trevor Gulliver, Khan outlines eight proposals “that would help secure the West End’s future survival.”
The proposals begin with an extension to the business rates holiday from next March, and overhauling that cost for the likes of restaurants as they face increased competition from online retailers. The letter also seeks targeted support for workers by extending the furlough scheme, and ensuring freelance and self-employed workers receive their own financial protections. It wants to see a direct financial aid scheme for the likes of restaurants in central London, alongside a programme for small businesses unable to pay their rent, who are struggling to negotiate with landlords. Beyond that, Khan calls for more investment in the NHS test and trace and more support for hospitality businesses to implement their own systems. Lastly, he wanted to see measures to increase public confidence: For example, make face coverings compulsory in the busiest public spaces.
It was now clear that “we need to learn to live with the virus,” but Londoners needed confidence that it was under control, Khan said. “Recent [Mayor’s office] polling shows that Londoners are still not travelling to central London.” The letter points out that 66 percent of those surveyed said it was “unlikely” they would travel in the next week. The same survey showed that people would be more comfortable visiting central London if face masks were used not just when inside shops and venues.
Khan presented the economic case, calling London the “economic engine of the U.K.,” which was a “cultural powerhouse, and a gateway for global tourism to the U.K.” London’s economy accounts for a quarter of the U.K.’s total economic output and contributes a net £38.7 billion to the Treasury, he said.
But the prospects for the city — “in the face of a perfect economic storm” — look bleak unless urgent support was forthcoming. Khan reminded the government that “until we have an operational vaccine in place, social distancing will have to continue to protect people’s health, and with employers planning to continue home-working well into next year, the numbers of people visiting the West End will be reduced for many months ahead.”
He added, contrary to the objections manifest in Gulliver’s searing dispatch, that he was “doing all within [his] powers to help.” Khan said that included providing loans and funding directly to small businesses and ensuring [the transport network’s] safety and hygiene measures meant more passengers were now able to travel.
UK Hospitality chief executive, Kate Nicholls said it was “very welcome to hear the Mayor echo so many of our calls for support for hospitality and tourism.” Nicholls reiterated that the likes of restaurants “have been hammered by the crisis and they are going to be key to the economic recovery, not just of London, but the whole UK...We are only at the very beginning of what will be a long recovery, so having the support of the Mayor is reassuring.”
Earlier this week, Big Hospitality reported that the Liberal Democrats called on Westminster Council to extend road closures throughout central London to include Mondays and Tuesdays, so that businesses could make the most of the government’s Eat Out to Help Out campaign. The road closures, which have given for restaurants to trade outside on the street — apply from Wednesday only in some areas. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme is available Monday to Wednesday throughout August — and in its first week saw over 10.5 million take-ups across the country.
Khan wants assistance, but he also wants clarity for businesses who aren’t only hamstrung by lost revenue, but also by the myriad uncertainties they now face. What the government does next is anyone’s guess.