Victoria Sampson, a Partner at CooperBurnett and one of the founders of enTWine, interviewed Mr Clark, putting questions to him which had been submitted by enTWine members. As the event had a focus on hospitality this time around, Victoria first asked him about this sector and how it had been coping during the pandemic.
Mr Clark explained that he was amazed at how the sector had responded to the situation, which had happened ‘very suddenly’.
“So many of the hospitality businesses locally are run by individuals, rather than big corporates, and it’s been horrendous for them; they’ve been hit very hard,” he explained. “Throughout this period, I have continued to talk to the people involved in the sector, I think it’s been important to do that.”
This was acknowledged by Matthew Sankey from Sankey’s, who said he had indeed been very supportive.
Mr Clark explained how he had taken their concerns to the House of Commons, which led to some support packages, including the furlough scheme for staff, while there had been other measures such as the temporary cut in VAT and the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in the summer.
“None of us expected to be locked down again,” Mr Clark said and added that the situation had affected other industries too, including travel, the events sector and all the various suppliers.
There were a number of questions around the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre in the town and the future of retail generally.
“Tunbridge Wells is not the only place where the future of the town centre is being discussed,” said Mr Clark. “I think the trends we are seeing – for more online shopping for instance – have certainly been accelerated by this pandemic.”
He added that Tunbridge Wells was in the fortunate position of being somewhere people want to live and this will continue post-Covid, when there could be a trend for people to move out of bigger cities, particularly as working from home is set to continue.
“Tunbridge Wells is a place which attracts people for many reasons,” he said. “These include as a place to eat, buy a coffee, enjoy cultural and artistic venues and independent stores. It’s encouraging that British Land is investing in RVP and it’s looking so much better since its refresh.”
Victoria then asked Greg about mental health, something which is much more prevalent since lockdown. He explained that his own website Greg Clark | MP for Tunbridge Wells includes links to mental health support, as he appreciates the increased need for this.
“I don’t believe we can live in a totally virtual working environment, as there are certainly downsides of not spending time with colleagues,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been particularly hearing about from hospitality business owners who have not only been dealing with their own worries but have been mentoring often very anxious staff members.”
Finally, on a more positive note, asked if he had planned a holiday, Mr Clark said he was keen on an active break including walking and cycling, but his teenage children weren’t so enthusiastic…
He added: “Like everyone else, I’d love to be back at the pub enjoying a beer or eating out. However, as the vaccination programme continues apace, there is reason to believe that this will be possible. We just need to get through the next few weeks.