Over the course of the last five months I have participated in hundreds of Zoom calls.
More often than not these calls have been in co-operation with local groups and related to local issues from road maintenance to reopening zoos, to helping repatriate constituents stuck abroad. Their variety has been far and wide and each and every one of them has raised important issues and views.
But if asked to narrow all of those calls and meetings down to one specific area of concern then undoubtedly it would be on the future of our tourism and hospitality sectors.
From the Devon Economic Recovery Group and Torbay Together meetings, as well as the Devon MPs’ weekly calls, we have spent hundreds of hours working together on how to reignite these important sectors in our local economy.
It was because of the insight, knowledge and experience expressed during those calls and meetings from business leaders, restaurant owners, publicans and hoteliers that I was able to launch an extensive and ultimately successful campaign to reduce the tourism and hospitality VAT level to five per cent.
Whitehall moves slowly but when a third of the Conservative Party sign your letter calling for a reduction then you tend to get noticed. This temporary reduction is a significant step and it throws a lifeline to these two sectors.
On my weekend walkabouts in Brixham and Salcombe, I spoke to café owners and publicans alike who told me that their takings were significantly up on last year. But that there was a long way to go to make up for four months of closure.
One business owner said they saw a light at the end of the tunnel but could not yet be sure it was not a train coming down the tracks.
This sentiment has been expressed in person to me and in my inbox.
There is a new sense of optimism and determination to do what you can under the current circumstances. But we should not allow ourselves to believe this is the end of the road.
Since success breeds success, I have already launched a new campaign to further assist the tourism and hospitality sectors.
First, the implementation of a VAT repayment scheme over three to five years. Some businesses have opted to pay their VAT for 2019-2020, others have taken the deferment option to 2021.
For the latter, they are likely to be facing a significant bill in 2021 and problems of cash flow may well arrive.
It would surely be more sensible to provide a repayment scheme over three to five years to ensure businesses are given the breathing space to create reserves, perform upgrades and clear any Covid-related debts.
Second, the creation of a tourism and hospitality regeneration fund could allow us to help promote and protect local domestic tourism, as well as raising awareness of those businesses indirectly linked to these sectors.
Our fishing community, for example, has not only been knocked by closed borders due to Covid but are also finding themselves caught in between the China-UK diplomatic spat as we reduce our dependency on Chinese technology.
As Chinese demand wanes, it is essential we find ways of integrating our local produce with our successful tourism and hospitality sectors.
Third, group think should not be shunned. We have seen it in the past, were collective support and publicity can raise awareness and drive demand.
It is time to reinvigorate the tourism and hospitality groups here in South Devon.
While there are many individual groups who do a tremendous job, including Torbay Together, ultimately, we are not working from the same sheet.
It is time that all of South Devon worked together to help platform, advertise and enhance our tourism and hospitality sectors.
For now, our tourism and hospitality businesses have resumed activity, admittedly not full speed, but it is my hope that July, August and September will see improved takings and that the rapid rise and popularity of the ‘staycation’ will reach through to October, November and December.
It will only be in December when we can fully understand whether the light is the train or the end of the tunnel.