Active COVID-19 cases in the Hunter New England Health region have dropped significantly, thanks to successful lockdown measures. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who isn’t still affected by the pandemic, whether through lost work, changes to business operations, or the challenges of life in lockdown.
At times like these, we look to our leaders to provide strong guidance and support – and on a local level, that means city councils. Here, we’ll take a look at how councils in Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Cessnock and Port Stephens have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and introduced measures to support their communities through a time of crisis.
The City of Newcastle’s COVID-19 response has been robust and fast-moving. Since March, the specially formed COVID-19 Emergency Response Team has been working with government partners and local stakeholders to mitigate the effects of the virus on Novocastrians. A comprehensive Community and Economic Resilience Package was announced towards the end of March, putting forth an initial $5.5 million for financial and social support. The package incorporates:
COUNCIL SUPPORT ($1,500,000) – Flexibility on Council fees and policies for businesses and individuals; includes waiving of library fees, returning booking fees and maintaining current parking rates.
RENT RELIEF FOR CITY OF NEWCASTLE TENANTS ($732,000) – A 50% discount on rent for two quarters for small businesses operating out of Council-owned buildings.
COMMUNITY GRANT PROGRAM ($700,000) – Financial and in-kind support for local not-for-profits, non-government organisations, community groups and organisations delivering essential services and solutions to COVID-19 challenges.
PROCUREMENT AND PURCHASING SUPPORT ($535,000) – Increasing local weighting assessment wherever possible, and fast-tracking invoice payments for existing contracts with local suppliers.
CITY TASKFORCE AND INDUSTRY RESPONSES ($500,000) – A task force incorporating business, industry and government representatives from key sectors to coordinate the recovery phase and provide support to targeted industries.
LOCAL ONLINE TRAINING PROGRAMS ($500,000) – Professional development training and accreditation opportunities for local small business owners and staff.
FINANCIAL HARDSHIP SUPPORT ($468,000) – Enabling residents to undertake payment plans for rates and waiving interest penalties until end of June 2021.
LEAN IN NEWY ($150,000) – A soon-to-be-launched social action and economic incentive app, pairing volunteers with local organisations in need of assistance and rewarding participants with points redeemable at local establishments.
NEWCASTLE LIBRARIES E-LIBRARY EXPANSION ($100,000) – Expanded access to e-books, online newspapers and magazines, e-audio, movie and music streaming, and more e-Library services.
NEWCASTLE LIBRARIES ONLINE LEARNING ($60,000) – Expanded subscription to Studiosity, a one-on-one tutoring initiative for students, as well as thousands of online training programs available through LinkedIn’s online learning platform, Lynda.
Novocastrians are already seeing the benefits of the support package. In April, eight charitable organisations received shares in the first $150,000 of Rapid Response Funding community grants, with payments rolled out promptly to initiatives providing meals, care packages, online counselling, education equipment for disadvantaged youth, and more.
A further $550,000 will soon be doled out to the recipients of the Boost Our City Community Sector Grants; after a strong response, applications closed in early May, and funding will be delivered to more organisations whose services support community health and wellbeing.
Longer-term support is in the works, too. The City Taskforce held the first of its virtual meetings in April, and will convene fortnightly until the end of the year to facilitate future recovery phases; its first initiative will be an Expression of Interest program to provide support to targeted local industries. The City of Newcastle’s initial Resilience Package will also be followed by a “Road to Recovery” program. Expected to be announced in June and implemented from July, the program will focus on infrastructure, advocacy, sustainability programs, events and tourism.
“We are embracing community thinking,” Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes says of the council’s response to the pandemic. “The City of Newcastle is a community that cares and looks after each other.”
Over in Lake Macquarie, it’s a robust community-focused effort as well. A Community and Business Support Package has been developed to alleviate pandemic pressure and includes two rent relief measures – a scaled commercial rent relief program for eligible businesses, and a 50% rent waiver for eligible residential tenants. The package also includes the waiving of Council lease fees until the end of September for community organisations, and updates to the Council’s Financial Hardship Assistance Policy to assist residents, businesses and landlords struggling to pay rates.
Lake Macquarie’s creative community has also been included in financial support initiatives. In April, $13,500 was awarded to 10 local artists in the first round of a new creative grants program, which aims to support creative projects and initiatives by Lake Mac artists by providing grants of up to $2,500. The second round of applications is open until 25th May, with funds to be delivered to successful applicants in July.
As the final part of its Community and Business Support Package, Lake Macquarie Council is also in discussions with local charities and non-profits about the possibility of redeploying Council staff members whose roles have been affected by COVID-19. If the initiative goes ahead, it will involve Council staff working part-time with local organisations in need of assistance with their day-to-day operations.
Like Newcastle, many of Lake Macquarie’s cultural services have moved online, with digital catalogues and programming from Lake Mac Libraries and the Museum of Art and Culture keeping residents entertained and engaged during the lockdown. Also in the digital sphere, Council has launched a #LakeMacLocal Facebook group and business directory to bring local businesses and residents together. Businesses offering services throughout the pandemic are encouraged to register for listing in the directory, and can directly promote their services and connect with other local businesses in the Facebook group.
“These are challenging times… But I am certain we will prevail,” sums up Lake Macquarie Mayor, Kay Fraser. “And we will continue to serve the community that we love and respect.”
Maitland City Council has stepped up to support its community as well, with $944,000 worth of response actions to date and a further $1–1.5 million to be considered. The Council’s Hardship Policy has been updated for those affected by COVID-19, suspending debt collection and interest charges on outstanding rates; offering deferment for rate payments and the option to undertake payment plans; and waiving lease payments for Council lease and licence holders.
Local businesses and organisations are a strong focus, with the Vibrant City Sponsorship Program to offer $20,000 of in-kind and financial sponsorship. There’s been a big push for online promotion of local businesses, with $10,000 dedicated to ‘A Taste of Maitland’ – an initiative to encourage support of local food and beverage outlets; $5,000 for social media promotion of businesses in The Levee, increasing awareness of operating statuses and online shopping options; and $30,000 dedicated to fast-tracking actions from the draft Destination Management Plan to boost Maitland’s visitor economy once travel restrictions are eased. Council has also upped its communication with businesses during the pandemic period, distributing online newsletters and blog posts with the latest COVID-19 updates.
Maitland is also focused on fostering an ongoing sense of community throughout these challenging times. Initiatives like Quick Response Creative Streets funding take things to a community level, offering a total of $60,000 worth of grants to support projects that create experiences where people feel connected. Residents can enjoy at-home entertainment as the Live @The Levee program moves online to deliver Home Sessions from local musicians on the third Friday of each month, and a wealth of resources await users in Maitland Library’s online collections.
“We want to ensure that our community members and businesses get through this difficult time and to the other side,” says Maitland Mayor, Loretta Baker. “We are all in this together, and I am confident that our COVID-19 response and recovery efforts will provide relief to our community.”
Around the corner from Maitland, Cessnock has recently begun a new “Support Local” campaign to encourage community support for businesses throughout the pandemic. Cessnock City Council has partnered with local business chambers and associations to deliver the campaign, which aims to harness the power of social media to raise awareness of the importance of shopping and hiring local, both now and into the future.
While this has been a difficult time for many Cessnock businesses and residents, it’s given rise to innovation in some community services, including Cessnock City Libraries. In addition to the library’s 24/7 online branch, library teams have partnered with the Northern Coalfields Community Care Association to offer a Library at Home delivery service to members. They have also been hosting storytime and local history chats on the library Facebook page.
On a financial level, Cessnock residents experiencing hardship due to COVID-19 are able to seek interest-free extensions on their rates instalments until the end of August. Council itself is also seeking financial support from the Federal and NSW Governments; as Cessnock City Mayor Bob Pynsent says, “This will enable us not only to maintain the essential services we provide our community but also to give Council more capacity to provide hardship assistance to our local businesses and residents.”
Port Stephens Council is also seeking federal financial assistance to aid its support of the local community through the pandemic. This assistance would enable Council to expand its current efforts, which include increased accessibility of hardship support for residents, as well as implementation of the Port Stephens Tourism and Business Support Fund – an allocation of $500,000 from the Holiday Parks and Property Reserves to support the Port Stephens economy.
On a practical front, the Port Stephens Small Business Support Program is connecting local businesses with government support, advice and services through a dedicated helpline. With a simple call or email, business owners and staff can chat with a Council representative who’ll help them get the expert advice they need. Council is also working on further measures to keep residents connected and supported, including a volunteer ‘helping hand’ program as well as a Community Service Sector Network, which will meet throughout the crisis to understand community needs and collaborate on grant opportunities and projects.
On an individual level, members of Port Stephens Library and Leisure Centres can access digital materials for engagement and enrichment throughout lockdown, including library e-collections, children’s storytime sessions and online workout videos. And to lift spirits during these tough times, the recently launched Port Stephens Kindness Project is aiming to “start a kindness epidemic”, inviting the local community to share images, videos and stories of residents staying connected and supporting others.
“We’re doing everything possible to provide support and deliver services needed to protect community health and keep our communities running during these difficult times,” says Port Stephens Mayor, Ryan Palmer.
While every LGA is tackling covid-19 a little differently, they all have one thing in common: the aim of helping their communities through the coronavirus crisis. So if you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out – there’s bound to be support on offer from your local council that can help you through.