How Northamtpton is working through these bizarre and fearful times

Posted 18th August 2020

The Coronavirus has been more disruptive to British life than anything since the Second World War. How quickly there is a return to normal or – an expression I really cannot abide, but which is used a great deal – a ‘new normal’ is very hard to predict. Newspapers, magazine and social media are full of columnists and opinion writers sharing their predictions of what the future holds. Much of it is unreliable, some outright nonsense. The Roman poet Horace had a very different perspective; “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero,” he wrote (“Seize the day, put no trust in the future”). In other words, try not to waste time worrying about the future (though it is easier said than done, even in Latin!) and concentrate on what needs to be done today.

I have spent the last five months speaking and listening extensively to Northampton businesses, business groups, charities and community groups about the challenges that they face.

I want to especially mention and thank the critical work of the Reverend Haydon Spenceley and his staff and volunteers of the Weston Favell Food Bank who have been working extraordinarily hard under the most difficult of circumstances to make sure that those people and families in crisis have the food and support they need. They are living proof of the meaning of the word community.

Some organisations will weather the oncoming storm relatively well, others not so well. The ones who have been evolving and adapting are the ones best placed to pull through this.

Northamptonshire Police has been using the lockdown time wisely. It has been quietly rebuilding and strengthening its systems and operations. Its major crime squad has seriously disrupted major drugs gangs in the county by hitting them when they were weak. Six major drug cartel members are currently sharing 124 years of prison time because of determined work by the police. Their intelligence backlog has been cleared and they are on the front foot in terms of their Force performance indicators. For example, they now sit in the top performing quartile of Criminal Justice Outcomes. They now have more police officers than in 2010 and by 2023 they will have 526 more officers to add to that.

Local public services like health and local government are also cooperating like never before. Their relationships are closer, deeper and better as a result of this crisis and this bodes well for the deep integration work taking place between the local NHS and Adult Social Care.

Our retail businesses have been adapting and upping their game by investing in online selling facilities to mitigate their physical retail sales loss and getting to grips with the power of social media to advertise. Northampton Forward is the town’s umbrella organisation seeking to create a bright future for a re-imagined Northampton and has bids into Government to help achieve that; attending their meetings and providing a Parliamentary perspective has helped me support those efforts. Also, in what proved to be a timely event, Google came to Northampton pre-lockdown to provide top tips for our smaller retail businesses to augment their sales with digital techniques that are now ever more critical; again, I was pleased to attend and meet many of those taking part.

I was very worried about the Royal and Derngate Theatre. The theatre has been in existence since 1884 and has been facing the perfect storm of vulnerability. The Arts Council, a key contributor for the Royal and Derngate, had been burning through their reserves to support theatres up and down the country and was on the point of financial exhaustion when the Government announced their £1.6 billion fiscal rescue plan, just in the nick of time.

The Royal and Derngate was not the only cultural and heritage organisation facing financial oblivion. Delapre Abbey and the 78 Derngate museum were also on the cliff edge of existence. Thankfully, they now all have a fighting chance with the cultural and heritage rescue package.

The heritage package was just part of the £30 billion array of support packages announced by the Chancellor. In these extraordinary times the Government has been deploying extraordinary support for the country. In normal times it would go against the economic and political instincts of many, including myself, and even in a time of zero and even negative world financial market interest rates the principal sum will have to be repaid at some stage and those rates will not be this low forever. Was it the right call? It seems so in the once in lifetime situation we are facing and with the alternative of an economic slump of a kind not seen since the 1930s.

I have tried and tried to conclude this reflection about these bizarre and fearful times without resorting to cliché, but it is an almost impossible challenge. One sentence turned into a Beatles tribute: “There is a long and winding road ahead, but if we come together with a little help from our friends, we can work it out.” Another ended up channeling Winston Churchill. The Good Book too provides quite appropriate words, given the Biblical nature of the challenge and of the distress some have already experienced. Simplicity seemed best and thus William Wordsworth: “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.”