Opinion: Make it easier for businesses to get help

Cllr Oliver Cooper wants Camden Council to be more proactive in its support of local businesses duri

Cllr Oliver Cooper wants Camden Council to be more proactive in its support of local businesses during the pandemic. - Credit: Oliver Cooper

Something unusual is happening to my inbox.

Ordinarily, councillors are inundated with residents eager for help in resolving problems big or small. However, in the last week, another group has become more vexed: local businesses.

I’ve spoken to dozens of small firms about the situation. While all say they remain profitable in the long-term, several tell me the bigger threat to maintaining their workforces is short-term cashflow.

To ensure our economy rebounds – nationally or locally – small businesses without access to easy credit need help to weather that turbulence and get out unscathed the other side without the huge human harm done by laying off staff. That also reduces the pressure on them to reopen prematurely and risk spreading Covid further.

The extensive government support – whether the furlough scheme, the business support grant, or business interruption loans – is focused on tiding workers and businesses over to minimise disruption and dislocation, to ensure solid businesses stay viable and vibrant.

Some of the schemes are understandably complex. However, those complexities should be the problem of the people administering them, not the businesses that need money quickly.

Take one example: the £12 billion Business Grant Funds for small and medium sized businesses, which are provided by central government and administered by local councils.

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A few councils quickly distributed every penny, but not all have. In Camden, a quarter – 980 businesses – that qualify have still not got their grants of £10,000: seven weeks on from Camden receiving it. That’s among the most missing out in the country.

While Camden has £9m left to allocate, the council that’s been most successful at distributing the money – nearby Westminster – has voluntarily given businesses £5m more than it received from government. That keeps more businesses afloat and more people in work.

Westminster has done this by being proactive. They have the bank details of most businesses and mailing addresses for all of them – so if they haven’t been able to make a payment, they’ve sent a cheque.

By contrast, in Camden, businesses have to step forward and ask the council for almost every scrap of funding. When I asked Camden to send cheques, as in Westminster, the council refused, saying it would visit premises individually instead. That’s hardly any use when the businesses in most trouble are closed!

This is businesses’ money, provided by the government with businesses’ names on to help them keep on staff – they shouldn’t have to navigate local councils’ bureaucracies to get their hands on it.

Another area where the council could make it easier for businesses to get support is rents for its own commercial tenants. Unbeknownst to most, Camden is the freeholder to many of Hampstead Village’s shops, including almost all of Heath Street south of the station.

Camden has said that troubled businesses can ask them for a deferral for up to three months of some of their rent they owe the council. We’re now over two months into lockdown, so a delay of just three months means rent requests for those arrears soon landing on doormats of still-closed shops.

While many small businesses can’t get the finance to tide them over, councils have a Treasury-guaranteed ability to borrow cheaply short-term.

Deferring all the council’s commercial rents borough-wide for six months would cost just £75,000 in interest. But by keeping a number of its own tenants, Business Rates payers, and local employers in business, it would save Camden many times that – never mind the benefits to businesses themselves. Sadly, when I raised this, Camden’s leadership refused this too.

Camden can’t just stand by while businesses suffer and wait for them to come forward to ask for help. Business needs proactive support – especially when it’s their money, and councils are meant to be merely administering it for the government.

But until Camden changes these rules: if you run a business, make sure you’ve got the business support you need, and ask Camden – or contact me at oliver.cooper@camden.gov.uk – if you haven’t. Despite the council’s difficulties getting it out, that money has your name on.