The Conservative MP representing the core of London’s retail, cultural and financial sectors has said she has had “encouraging conversations with ministers” about “a massive marketing campaign to encourage visitors back to London,” after the pandemic, as fears grow about the damage being done to an area vital to the national economy.
Speaking to On London, Nickie Aiken, who has represented Cities of London & Westminster since the general election and was previously leader of Westminster City Council, also said she would like to see the current 10.00 p.m. hospitality curfew staggered in order to avoid crowds of people emerging on to the streets at the same time.
“I do understand that this virus is still with us and will be for some time,” Aiken said. “London tends to be first out of the blocks after a downturn but it looks like it will be the last after the pandemic. It’s all about timing. We’ve got to be in a position where people feel confident about coming back in bigger numbers.”
In the House of Commons last week, Aiken called for measures to support hard-hit industries, citing an unpublished report by the Heart of London Business Alliance (HOLBA) warning that further lockdowns and long-term social distancing would devastate West End arts jobs. She told On London that her suggestions for “tweaking the curfew” included venues being allowed to serve non-alcoholic drinks at later stages of the evening.
Aiken’s interventions follow publication by the Central London Alliance of business organisations – of which HOLBA is a founding member – of a manifesto of measures to aid the area’s recovery, including a five-year settlement for Transport for London and VAT refunds for all international shoppers post-Brexit,
There have also been pleas from tourism and creative industry bodies for tailored help for West End cultural and other visitor attractions, with the World Tourism and Travel Council warning London is set to be the European city worst hit by the Covid-19 crisis. Government statistics show that visits to the National Collections plateaued in September at one fifth of usual levels. Attendance at City of London attractions was down 86% year-on-year in August.
Culture and the creative industries contribute £52 billion annually to the capital’s economy and one in seven London jobs is linked to tourism. Central London is at the bottom of Centre for Cities’ High Street recovery tracker for footfall, at just 35% of pre-lockdown levels in the last week of September.
Last month, think tank Centre for London proposed a Recovery Plan for the West End, including “London Fringe” events on the streets, tax breaks for new businesses, expansion of cycle hire schemes and a culture voucher similar to Eat Out to Help Out.
Aiken, who as a councillor chaired Westminster’s licensing committee, said, “You should always have staggered closing times to ensure public safety, address anti-social behaviour and crime and ensure people can get home safely”.
She suggests allowing bars to wind down after 10:00 p.m. and restaurants and casinos being permitted to stay open later without the sale or consumption of alcohol. In Paris, while bars and cafes have been temporarily ordered to close altogether, restaurants remain open and exempt from curfew.
Aiken’s successor as Westminster leader, Rachael Robathan, expressed similar views, saying “It is no secret I have concerns about the effects of groups of people emerging onto our streets at the same time and I have asked council officers to gather evidence”.
Last week, Sadiq Khan called for a rapid review of the curfew and his “night czar” Amy Lamé told Bloomberg Daybreak, “There’s no evidence to support a 10.00 p.m curfew. We need urgent financial help for businesses that have to close at 10.00 p.m, if the government wants to continue the curfew.” A sizeable Conservative rebellion is predicted in a Commons vote on the curfew, but Labour leader Keir Starmer has said his party won’t oppose it.
Disquiet about the measure is not confined to Central London. Ealing Southall Labour MP Virendra Sharma, who signed a letter co-ordinated by Liberal Democrat Daisy Cooper demanding the government publish evidence for the curfew, told On London: “Lots of local businesses in my constituency rely on late night trade. The government needs to make sure precautions are led by expert advice, and that when expert advice is given they follow it.”
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