Opinion: Crisis highlights necessity of local shops

Small shops have shown how important they are during the crisis believes Cllr Liz Morris.

Small shops have shown how important they are during the crisis believes Cllr Liz Morris. - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Coronavirus has changed almost everything and that includes the role of a councillor.

Formal meetings and events have fallen away, while virtually every problem a constituent seeks my help with is now in some way linked to the virus or the lockdown.

I have also had the honour of helping local residents set up mutual-aid efforts to support the elderly and other vulnerable people who have had to self-isolate.

These networks have relied not only on the generosity and resourcefulness of local people but also local businesses.

To give just a few examples, a local newsagent has rapidly expanded its range of stock so people can get necessities without a potentially dangerous journey.

While a greengrocer in Highgate and Muswell Hill has been organising deliveries of fruit and veg boxes, as well as other shopping, for people self-isolating.

This crisis has shown just how important these kind of businesses are to local communities.

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So it is a brutal irony that it is also endangering them. A poll by the Corporate Finance Network suggested that 53 per cent of SMEs will be unable to access enough cash to survive four more weeks of lockdown.

To try and prevent the closure of hundreds of thousands of businesses, the government and councils have been offering them grants, loans and rate reliefs.

However, that will only help if the businesses which need it can take it up in time.

Despite Herculean efforts by council officers, as of April 20, Haringey had only paid grants to just 12pc of potentially eligible businesses.

This rate puts it in the bottom 5pc of districts in England.

I know of several businesses just along my local high street which have applied for grants but have not received them and they are starting to have critical cash flow problems.

The council must get this funding out urgently.

The government also needs to tweak the eligibility for grants. It has given councils money to pay a grant out to businesses rather than taking taxes from them.

This was a pragmatic way to identify lots of businesses quickly.

However, it means that if a business pays its rates as a part of its rent, then it is their landlord and not the actual business who is entitled to the grant money.

If the government does not want these businesses (and the jobs they provide) to be lost, then it must find a way to close this loophole.

To advocate for this, our Liberal Democrat council group have written to the chancellor and launched an online petition. To add pressure, Sarah Olney MP, Lib Dem business spokesperson, has tabled a parliamentary question to ministers on how they plan to resolve this challenge.

As well as looking to the government and councils, we as citizens and shoppers must do what we can to support our local businesses.

The convenience of online shopping is hard to resist – trust me, I know – but whilst it definitely has its place, as this crisis has shown we need shops and tradesmen actually in our local areas.