City of Newcastle’s timely and targeted response to COVID-19 has been commended as “best practice crisis leadership” delivering clear and measurable benefits to the community and local business.
An independent assessment by the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Centre at the University of Newcastle stated the City “acted quickly and decisively” in developing its Community and Economic Resilience Package (CERP).
That program was announced on 20 March 2020, almost two weeks before NSW went into lockdown.
The $5.5 million package was unanimously endorsed by councillors on 24 March, ahead of the federal government announcing its own rescue package for workers with JobKeeper.
Commissioned by the City of Newcastle, the HRF Centre report revealed the “well-rounded” nature of the initiative was one of its key strengths, giving careful consideration to those most likely to be affected by the pandemic including vulnerable populations, the unemployed and small business.
Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said she was proud of the way the City responded to what was the single largest social and economic crisis since World War II.
Since adopting the initial support package, City of Newcastle has continued to invest significantly to assist the community’s recovery from COVID-19, with an additional $2.5 million added to a second phase of the CERP.
It also pivoted a range of existing programs, grants and sponsorships to best serve the most vulnerable populations affected by COVID-19, while events such as New Annual provided a significant economic boost for the local arts sector.
“Newcastle has a history of pulling together when faced with challenges, from the 1989 earthquake and closure of BHP to the devastation of the Pasha Bulker storms in 2007,” Cr Nelmes said.
“When the threat of COVID-19 began to take shape early last year, we very quickly considered how we could deliver social, economic and well-being outcomes that would support our community through the unknown impacts that were still to come.
“It was important to give our community confidence that City of Newcastle was stepping up and leaning in at a time when there was so much social and economic disruption.
“The outstanding efforts of City of Newcastle staff meant that with early planning and quick mobilisation of resources, we were able to put together a meaningful package of actions that could be implemented swiftly to help those who needed it most.”
The CERP included 10 programs across a range of financial relief, business and community support:
- Rapid Response Grants provided urgent funds to assist local organisations servicing the most vulnerable community members with $172,466 for food, care packages and counselling;
- Boost Our City Community Grants provided 32 organisations with $512,172 to assist with increased demand for services including scaling food preparation and distribution, technology assistance for vulnerable communities and increased counselling;
- Rent Relief Program provided $732,000 in rent reductions for 60 local businesses and community organisations;
- Financial Hardship Program provided $1.25m in financial relief to 761 ratepayers;
- Lean in Newy enabled 2,349 members of the community to provide ‘acts of kindness’, with 60 businesses financially benefiting from rewards earned by participants; and
- Online training programs provided 149 residents with access to tailored training packages during a time when businesses were unable to operate.
Cr Nelmes said the CERP was the catalyst for calling on 17 city leaders from business, industry, creative arts, social services and government to come together as the City Taskforce.
Meeting monthly to identify critical local issues, it developed both immediate interventions as well as detailed analysis shared with state and federal government on the local impacts and opportunities for government to provide meaningful and focused support.
The Taskforce demonstrated how City of Newcastle could provide community leadership by collaborating with institutions and service providers to help them do what they do best for the benefit of everyone.
This included $500,000 in targeted support for the hardest-hit industries through the Industry Response Program, as well as the establishment of the Greater Newcastle Youth Employment Charter that provided a symbolic and tangible way for business to signal to our youth, the group most impacted by COVID-19, that we had their backs.
HRF Centre lead economist and co-author of the report Dr Anthea Bill said the City was an early mover.
“The approach was two-pronged: broad support for Newcastle residents generally, and targeted support, which anticipated larger impacts for particular parts of the community,” she explained.
“Feedback from the evaluation shows this enabled select not-for-profits to better meet the needs of their clients during the early-phase of the pandemic.”