Reopening Yorkshire and new spirit of optimism – Andrew Vine

THERE’S something in the air that we’ve been missing for what feels like a very long time – optimism.

Non-essential shops are preparing to reopen from Monday.

It’s there in the shopkeepers where I live – they are polishing their windows and arranging displays; in the gazebos going up outside the pubs and restaurants; in the upbeat mood of the hairdresser across the road who’s booked up solid for a month.

As if in step with the lengthening spring days and temperatures edging upwards, it feels like life is emerging from an enforced winter hibernation and finally that there is something to look forward to.

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Monday’s reopening of the newly spick-and-span shops, the pubs and restaurants that can serve outdoors and the hairdressers who do so much to make their customers feel that something like normality has returned will produce a surge of optimism that the worst is finally over.

Boris Johnson at this week's Downing Street press conference in a slick new media suite.

This time, there’s reason to be hopeful that it really is, and goodness knows how we all need that to be true after the euphoria of last summer’s easing of restrictions faded into the grimness of autumn and winter.

But the sense that we have turned a corner is palpable in everyone I know who runs a business, whether it be a hairdresser’s or a restaurant.

They’ve hung on – often by the skin of their teeth – but they’re still in there batting, ready to put the ordeal behind them and start down the long road back.

On Monday, they’ll open up and take the first steps.

Retail destinations like Leeds are preparing to welcome back shoppers from Monday as non-essential stores are permitted to reopen.

Three cheers for them all, the battered, the harried and the worried.

Like the driving instructor round the corner who told me that after months of teetering on the verge of having to declare herself bankrupt, she now thinks her business will survive.

Survivors, all of them. Less of the virus than its tremors that shook the foundations of their lives. Now they’re ready to dust themselves down and start rebuilding.

They’re optimistic, so are their customers, and it’s producing a general lifting in everybody’s mood.

That will only grow as the day-to-day business of going shopping and maybe having a drink or a meal out evolves from novelty back to being the norm, as the daily numbers of the ill and lost continue to fall.

Vaccination has given us cause for that optimism, but so has the growing sense that we’ve finally got the measure of this invisible foe that, for so long, seemed to find every gap in our defences.

Those gaps have been closed up with social distancing and masks, as well as jabs, and we’ll go about our business with a renewed confidence next week and next month, when the manacles are loosened a little further.

As that happens, every community in Yorkshire every business large or small, every employee praying that their job is safe and every family depending on a secure income needs to be heard if optimism is to translate into security.

Maybe never before in living memory – and certainly not in this crisis – has it been so important that the Government listens to what is being said on streets like mine, on the shopping parades and in the pubs and hairdressers about what is needed to get us back to normal.

The picture of our region’s recovery – and the whole country’s – is going to be a mosaic of many stories at local and regional level, all of them coming together to form a whole. The Government needs to pay the closest attention to all these stories, tailoring its response and support to what will be a patchy revival of the economy.

Slick press conferences from a multi-million-pound briefing room in Downing Street and big-picture announcements of support packages aren’t enough.

They are too distant from life on streets like mine.

It won’t be ministers who hear of problems and practical difficulties, but councils and elected mayors, who have their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in their communities, who truly appreciate the unique difficulties and challenges that their areas face.

Respect for localism and regionalism have to be at the heart of recovery. Those who live and work alongside the economic survivors of this pandemic know better than any minister sequestered amongst portraits of illustrious predecessors what their needs are. We know best how to thaw our town and city centres from the suspended animation in which they have spent much of the past year, how to restore the pulse of both days and nights.

Listen to us. Hear what we say and act upon it. Heed us when we tell you that alongside the pubs, the hairdressers, the restaurants and the shops, we need support for the cinemas and the galleries and the theatres to open.

Culture matters, not only for the richness it brings to lives and the livelihoods of all those it employs, but for its role in attracting audiences who then fan out into the night-time economy of bars and restaurants.

We can all do our bit to help revive high streets by turning away from online retailers and getting back into the shops, but that needs to backed up by more Government help, incentives for new businesses to move in to empty shops and support for councils to encourage more shoppers into our towns and cities.

There is hope in the air, and every reason to be optimistic. If those in power listen to us and give the right support, that optimism will be one of our greatest assets in getting our lives and communities back to normal.

Read Andrew Vine in The Yorkshire Post every Tuesday.

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