As part of a series exploring Big Local responses to COVID-19, our journalist-at-large Ryan Herman speaks to Anita Luckett, chair of Dover Big Local, about the Together4Dover initiative which supports residents during lockdown and demonstrates the value of Big Local to the Dover community.
With each passing day a new story reveals the identity of another business that will disappear from the high street as a result of COVID-19. The fallout is already being felt in communities where people typically tend to be employed in the retail or service sectors.
Even without the shocking impact of this pandemic, it’s been obvious for years that there has to be an innovative, long-term strategy for reinventing the high street.
The Communities and Local Government Committee published a report in 2019 titled ‘High Streets and Town Centres in 2030’, and one of its recommendations was ‘that action is taken at local level to create visionary strategies for high streets and town centres which have the backing of the local community, to support local traders, to facilitate parking and to develop the role of place partnerships.’
Step forward Dover Big Local.
They have been supporting start-ups through Co-Innovation, a project that aims to incubate businesses at low risk and prepare them to move into the high street. In 2018, they leased what was formerly a Co-Op supermarket from the council for a nominal sum as a ‘meanwhile space’, whilst future plans for the site are drawn up, where traders can rent space for as little as £5 a day.
“One of the comments we often get is that for the price of two coffees people can put their work on display and get feedback from the public and that validates what they do,” says DBL chair Anita Luckett.
“It may not be a fully-formed business but it doesn’t mean it has no value. And where do we let them continue to do that when Co-Innovation no longer exists?”
She adds, ”We hope to ask the council whether we can negotiate to extend its life because whatever is being planned has also been put on hold.’
Dover’s town square is set for a multi-million-pound makeover. But in the immediate future, Anita believes that “we think shops need to become more experiential. More people have become used to shopping online during this crisis. You need to be selling something you can touch, feel, or eat.”
While Co-Innovation has been closed during lockdown, DBL has been advising businesses to think about how they can still find an audience for their products.
“One of the traders at Co-Innovation was very concerned about his future. And we said ‘think about your business. Don’t think about how you’ve been trading, but think about what people need’. He sells tropical fish and pet food, and you’ve got all these kids stuck at home. So perhaps you could deliver a starter tank one week and then the fish the next week. You need to be agile and I think we’ll have to encourage people to think outside the box.”
There is also an idea in the pipeline that would see DBL potentially hosting an event around how businesses can harness local buying power.
“Before COVID-19, one of my slight concerns was that we would be the host organisation and others might think ‘who the hell are they to host this?’”
But any lingering doubts have hopefully been assuaged by DBL’s role in Together4Dover – a multi-agency response to COVID-19.
“Together4Dover has boosted the trust that local authorities and the local council have in Dover Big Local. And there will probably be more interest around trying to deliver that project around local money,” she says.
It was founded on the back of two women starting up a COVID-19 Response Group on Facebook.
Anita recalls that “it sparked a wave of people coming forward to offer their support. A lot of us were thinking ‘that’s lovely, but it’s risky. What happens when people realise we’re in this for the long haul, and how do we prevent anyone exploiting that situation?’ But also we didn’t want to disrespect all this amazing goodwill.
“When we asked the Facebook group ‘have you thought about safeguarding?’ Straight away one of the ladies said ‘yes’ but she said she would welcome help with that’”
Within a few days, a meeting was convened. Anita expected maybe half a dozen people to turn up. It was nearer to 20, including representatives from Big Local, the church, the Facebook group, the NHS, the Fire Service and Dover District Council.
She adds, “We all agreed that there would be no egos in the room, nobody would be in charge or be more important than anybody else. We also wanted it to be clear that there was no one single group leading this.
“But to constitute a new group would have been difficult. So, we are the umbrella group of Together4Dover, however, this is very much a collective effort.”
A response system was rolled out at the beginning of April when everyone was satisfied it would work.
“We did wonder if we might have left it too late but what happened is that the council had everything dropped in their lap by central government who have effectively said ’you sort it out’. And they’ve had to figure it out on the fly, while also working from home. Their staff have been outstanding and worked closely with us throughout.”
“We have one phone number that goes through to six people covering a shift. Whoever takes the call feeds it to a WhatsApp group and then whoever is free says ‘I’ve picked up that job, and marks it as done. There is a script so everyone knows what to ask and doesn’t miss an important piece of information.
We have an undertaking to complete every job within 24 hours and we haven’t missed that deadline yet. Most get done within the hour.’
“So they’ve been passing us jobs of people who weren’t high risk, shielded people or have very specific needs. They simply ring the number or instruct somebody to ring our number so it takes that person out of their system and allows them to focus on people with specific needs.
“I think there is a presumption from central government that district-level councils can drop everything and pick this up. I wonder, when we look back on this, if those processes should have been troubleshot.”
What Together4Dover has created is a network and a system that can spring into action at very short notice in the event of a second wave of the virus or a new strain.
And it has also received a ringing endorsement from the leader of Dover District Council Trevor Bartlett, who said,
“This is another fantastic example of communities pulling together to help the most vulnerable at such a difficult time. I never fail to be impressed by just how resourceful people can be when faced with adversity.”
Anita adds, “This crisis might broaden the remit of what Big Local is and what its objectives are. One of the great strengths of Big Local is that you are free to learn from each other even if the challenges and issues each area faces are different.
“You have got to find ways to give people hope for the future.”