The coronavirus pandemic brought with it a terrible cost but Brighton Pavilion Green MP Caroline Lucas says that, as the lockdown eases, real change can occur

IT SEEMS an age ago that The Argus was reporting a small cluster of coronavirus cases in Brighton and Hove and our city’s unwelcome attention as a virus hotspot.

Now we’ve lived for months with a lockdown, a tragic number of deaths and the shutdown of so many businesses which are vital to the local economy.

So many of the sectors which make our city special – hospitality, tourism, the cultural and creative industries– are among those suffering the most from this terrible pandemic. It has left us all reeling.

The challenges facing us are enormous. But we have pulled together as a city and we will do our best to get through them. Coronavirus has been devastating but it has also brought out some of the best in us.

There’s a new appreciation of the community spirit which has always been part of Brighton, and the mushrooming of mutual aid groups. A new awareness too of how less traffic has made our streets safer and the air cleaner and of the value of green space – for exercise, for fresh air and for giving us a sense of wellbeing, particularly for families living in small flats with no outdoor space.

It has taken a terrible pandemic to bring this about and coronavirus has brought huge hardship and grief to so many people in our city. But as we start to emerge from the peak of this crisis, we need to hold on to what we have learned about the kind of city Brighton and Hove could be.

We could transform our city, making it more accessible to all while improving people’s health and reducing air pollution – tackling two of the factors which appear to increase people’s vulnerability to diseases like coronavirus. This isn’t just a health and environment issue but one which addresses inequality too. Framing a city around traffic marginalises those two in five households in Brighton which don’t have access to a car.

With even the AA predicting a permanent reduction in the demand for car travel, it’s clearly time to cancel the Government’s ludicrous £27 billion budget for roads and use the money instead to make streets safe, for walking, cycling, shopping and even play.

I’m glad to see the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has taken note and pledged £2 billion nationally to double the number of cyclists and walkers nationally by 2025. This new-found Government enthusiasm is a start, but it’s nothing like enough and it’s not new money but a fast-tracking of previous investment. It also massively under-estimates the sort of investment and imagination needed to truly transform our cities.

To put it in perspective, Manchester’s proposed cycling network alone would absorb three-quarters of the money proposed by the Government. Ministers need to go much further, by encouraging all councils to use their powers to reallocate road space for people to walk, cycle, shop and exercise safely.

With social distancing making it near impossible for restaurants and cafes to have many customers inside, we need to look at offering up some of the pavement space to them as long as it can be done safely, leaving plenty of space for passersby, especially those with limited mobility.

But pavements as community spaces is just a drop in the ocean compared to the challenges facing tourism, theatre, pubs, entertainment venues and the many thousands of people who work in the sector. Many are freelancers and, because of the way the Government’s self-employed support scheme is structured, they have been left with nothing over the past few months. I’ve been working hard to try to get these loopholes closed so that people are not left destitute.

I’ve also called for a special cultural sector relief fund and a national taskforce focused on the arts in recognition of the fact that this may be the last sector to re-open and so needs extra support. Other countries have done this. Why haven’t we?

Non-essential shops were allowed to re-open this week and I know this moment has come as a huge relief to hundreds of businesses in Brighton. But the returning shoppers cannot hide a worrying decline in our high streets.

That is another reason why we need to reclaim some of our streets from traffic. I understand that some businesses have genuine concerns about pedestrianised areas but there is plenty of evidence that streets built around people rather than cars create a healthy business environment by making places more attractive to visit, so people stay longer and spend more.

It’s important the views of residents and businesses are at the heart of the conversations taking place about the future of our city. The rush to reopen and get back to “normal” mustn’t prevent us from looking at changes which could lead to the improved health and wellbeing of residents in the city.

Coronavirus will have a lasting impact us all. But with the right commitment, we could make sure its legacy includes cleaner, more accessible cities that support healthier lifestyles and economies, and a turning point towards becoming carbon-neutral by 2030. It would be one way of ensuring the hardship, sorrows and sacrifices of the last four months have led to something better.