As unemployment rate peaks Southend councillors fear the situation could soon get ‘considerably worse’

Unemployment has hit its highest level in decades and councillors fear the worst could still be to come as Government support schemes come to an end.

Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in July the percentage of Southend residents claiming unemployment benefits hit 8.1 per cent – the highest rate since 1996.

But with major support schemes including furlough and a nationwide ban on evictions due wind down over the next two months, things could get “considerably worse”.

Council leader Ian Gilbert, who also oversees housing, said the health of residents must always come first but admitted there is a “difficult balance” to strike when it comes to preventing the virus from spreading and avoiding redundancies getting even worse.

He also called it a “huge worry” that the eviction ban will be lifted in a month and the furlough scheme scrapped just weeks later.

He said: “Given circumstances and the seriousness of what we are facing, more support is needed from the Government.

“The eviction ban is a huge worry. We are working with private sector landlords to try to avoid evictions and see if we can offer support to people at risk of becoming homeless. So far that has gone very well.

“But with the high unemployment figures, I fear things could get considerably worse when furlough scheme and the eviction ban ends.”

However, he insisted Southend can “bounce back” and the key in the long-term will be identifying new jobs in new sectors that can be brought to the town, including technology-focussed industries.

He also has confidence in tourism sector, which he said is showing signs that it remains popular.

Labour councillor Matt Dent, who represents the Kursaal ward, said his ward has been hit hard by job losses, particularly in the hospitality sector and people who are self-employed.

He said: “We are really starting to see the recession bite and the impact that is having on jobs. The furlough scheme will run out soon and we are starting to hit the point where a lot of redundancies are happening.

“A lot of people are losing their job but at the same time the pandemic has not gone away.

“We are sort of trapped between these two issues, which are connected.

“Those who have lost their jobs are ending up in dire situations and while we did get a month’s extension on the eviction ban by the Government, we can’t pretend like everything will go back to normal in a month’s time. Without serious Government intervention, this will only get worse.”

Cllr Dent spearheaded a Labour campaign in Southend to urge MPs to call for the ban on evictions to be extended over fears that the levels of unemployment will lead to a surge in homelessness.

The Government did extend that ban but only by four weeks and it will now come to an end on September 20.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said he was “supporting renters over winter”. Meanwhile, the furlough scheme will wind down at the end of October.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter