Whittlesea’s Church Street is central hub of businesses.

By Colin MacGillivray

THE City of Whittlesea has flagged helping businesses recover from the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as a priority in the coming months.

With easing State Government restrictions providing more opportunities for businesses to reopen, new council chief executive Craig Lloyd said a key to supporting the community would be helping businesses to re-establish themselves.

He said the pandemic had already taken a toll on local traders, with 23 businesses, mainly in the food and health and beauty sectors, permanently closing their doors in the past few months as a result of the lockdowns.

“Our economic development staff and our pandemic team have been working closely with a broad range of businesses, particularly those that have been most impacted by the restrictions,” he said.

“We’ve been working with businesses to establish Whittlesea Localised, which is an online business directory to try to promote businesses and get the good news stories out there. It’s an opportunity for businesses to collaborate as well.

“We’ve been waiving fees for footpath-trading permit holders.

“I’d encourage anyone who is in business and is struggling and needs support or guidance to please get in touch with council and our staff will do their utmost to help them wherever they can.”

Mr Lloyd said council had received 174 requests for support from 49 organisations across the city since April 6.

He said council had also worked to employ local people affected by the pandemic through the State Government’s Working for Victoria scheme, both at council and with frontline service providers.

Nearly 250 people have been employed through the scheme across the city, with a further 48 roles in recruitment.

Nearly 3000 residents have lost their jobs and been unable to access JobKeeper payments, while a further 15,000 residents are currently being supported through JobKeeper.

“We are aware that despite the State Government putting a lot of extra resources into mental health services, all the agencies and organisations we work with are experiencing high demand for mental health services,” Mr Lloyd said.

“They’re also supporting services such as food banks and social support.

“Particularly over-represented are younger people and people from vulnerable groups. So we’ll keep up our advocacy and flow of information back to the State Government as they prepare future programs.”

At last week’s ordinary council meeting administrators voted to waive registration fees for 1180 local businesses registered under the Food Act 1984 and the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008.

Council officers said the waiver would result in a total of $506,958 reduction in registration fees for businesses during the 2020-21 financial year.

Council director of planning and development Justin O’Meara said some businesses, such as supermarkets and certain accommodation providers, had been relatively unaffected by restrictions and would be ineligible for the waiver, but any business not included was able to appeal to council for a review.

Administrator Peita Duncan said council was committed to doing everything in its power to aid businesses.

“I think now is the time for councils to really step up and recognise our role along with key State Government agencies in supporting local employment and economic development for our city,” she said.

“We need to get on the front foot now to try to support our community as best we can to bring back some level of normality.

“We don’t know how that looks in post-COVID pandemic world, but we’ve really got to step up now and put our foot on the throttle to support our municipality.

“This is a very important additional half-a-million dollars of local support that will really help us to get things thriving again back in the city.”

Mr Lloyd said the opening of council facilities such as Whittlesea Swim Centre and Hanson’s Wollert Landfill were a sign that things were moving in a positive direction.

Chair administrator Lydia Wilson said it was important for people to continue to adhere to COVID-19 protocols as the city reopened.

“Vigilance has been instrumental in getting to the point that we are now, which is no active cases of COVID-19 within the municipality,” she said.

“It’s very pleasing that we are progressively reopening a number of services including recreation, leisure, the landfill and so on.

“We’ve continued to provide much-needed support both to community support agencies and in turn to our residents, but also to local businesses.”