Lord Mayor calls for urgent help amid “extremely worrying” report into the city’s ailing economy
By David Schout
Lord Mayor Sally Capp will meet with federal and state treasurers to urge targeted city support beyond March after a council report outlined a devastating economic impact of COVID-19 on Melbourne almost 12 months on.
The report concluded that while the local economy had shown signs of improvement after stage four restrictions were eased in late 2020, the recovery levels were not sustainable.
The City of Melbourne has been one of the hardest hit areas in Australia as a result of the pandemic and Cr Capp had sought an “urgent” meeting with federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg and state treasurer Tim Pallas.
Two key business support packages were due to expire at the end of March; the federal government’s JobKeeper payments, and the state government’s commercial tenancy relief scheme.
The council will call for “targeted” support beyond March 31.
“While we’ve seen areas where there’s been some uplift, the fact is that these challenging circumstances and uncertainty remain for so many of our businesses and we can expect that to be the case for some time,” Cr Capp said at a February 16 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting.
“The data is compelling, and it is helping us really drill down and understand the sectors and the places around the city that have been most impacted by this pandemic.”
The data, compiled by the council itself and other agencies, revealed a number of statistics that were “extremely worrying” according to Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece.
The report showed that pedestrian numbers in the CBD, and in particular Bourke Street Mall, had only shown a strong bounce-back around Christmas time.
“In the period leading up to Christmas we had a few days that were even better than last year. But that was brief, and following Christmas, pedestrian numbers declined again,” the council’s director of economic development Andrew Wear said.
Council staff also assessed hundreds of shopfronts within the CBD, and found that 28 per cent had either closed or were vacant.
The report found that small, independent retailers within the CBD were heavily reliant on foot traffic, and had been “less able to pivot to online” compared with larger retailers.
Mr Wear said February’s five-day lockdown revealed pedestrian numbers had returned to “the darkest days” of the 2020 stage four restrictions.
The report also revealed that while CBD workers had begun returning to offices, Melbourne lagged well behind other states.
In January, CBD office occupancy was at just 31 per cent which compared poorly with other capital cities around the country, with Sydney at 45 per cent and all other states above 60 per cent.
Cr Capp made no secret of the council’s wish before meeting with key figures in upper levels of government.
“Melbourne’s businesses need certainty and confidence. We’re going to keep saying it over and over again,” she said.
“We would like the state and federal government to be considering, particularly as we head into budget time, extra direct financial assistance for businesses here in the City of Melbourne that have borne the brunt of the economic fallout of this pandemic.”
Assistance needed to be “targeted” to reach “the hardest hit”.
Cr Capp said while the vaccine provided longer term hope for an end to the pandemic, businesses needed more urgent support.
“We are all excited at contemplating the rollout of the vaccine, but there’s still some time for that to happen,” she said.
“Melbourne is the engine room of the Victorian economy, it is a major driver of the nation’s GDP. I’m looking forward to working closely — we all are — with our state and federal counterparts to reboot and sustain our economic recovery.”
The report provided an “evidence-based platform” for discussion, according to the Lord Mayor, while Cr Reece said it revealed the “dire state of the Melbourne economy”.
“We need to see JobKeeper continue in a geographically targeted way,” he said.
Cr Davydd Griffiths said that beyond the numbers, each of the municipality’s 20,632 businesses currently receiving JobKeeper had their own story to tell.
“We can look at data about businesses, but of course each of those businesses represent real human beings; owners, workers and the communities that interact with those businesses daily.”
On February 21 the state government revealed its latest round of business support, which would assist local tourism, hospitality and events businesses.
“This funding package will help Melbourne businesses but there’s no doubt business owners are considering their future and whether they can remain open. Many have already made the decision to close,” Cr Capp said.