Wigan businesses speak about impact of Covid-19 and the financial support available
It has been an extremely challenging 12 months for a lot of companies in the borough.
Firms have had to contend with unprecedented shutdowns involving businesses being put on hold and staff furloughed as the Government has tried to tackle the novel coronavirus.
Company owners and leaders have not known when they will be able to restart work or when public venues will next be welcoming customers through the doors.
While entrepreneurs have been grateful to the Government and Wigan Council for the money that has been made available and the way it has been dished out, there have nevertheless been a number of shortcomings and inconsistencies identified in how companies have been supported.
Firms, especially those connected to the hospitality and entertainment sector, have been speaking about their experiences after former Latics chairman Bill Kenyon said slow bureaucracy had cost him tens of thousands of pounds in support grants for Holland Hall.
While none of the other stories were quite as dramatic or potentially costly as that, other issues with the system have been raised and other businesses have said they have ended up out of pocket.
Others have also pointed out the connected nature of business which means that if Mr Kenyon is struggling there are a whole host of concerns which get a knock-on effect, while problems with insurance policies have also taken their toll.
Craig Barton, manager at T&JT Barton, has three strands to the business: a snooker club, an off-licence and a warehouse premises which stores alcohol delivered to shops, restaurants, hotels and other similar venues.
Mr Barton questioned why the off-licence was eligible for support grants when it had not had to close and indeed had almost done better than ever with people drinking at home whereas the warehouse which supplies businesses which had to be shut completely was not.
He said: “When you look at it from a sensible point of view the off-licence was almost uptrading but it got support when strictly speaking it didn’t need it. But we never got the first grant for the warehousing and distribution side of the business, which is absolutely stupid.
“We ended up getting a discretionary grant but we didn’t get the first grant based on our rateable value. They just didn’t recognise it as part of the hospitality industry. That has been my problem with it.
“We would have qualified for the £25,000 grant and that would have made a massive difference.
“All our customers on the wholesale side were closed down and yet we didn’t get any support.”
Mr Barton also pointed out that hospitality venues in Wigan had spent huge amounts of money on plastic screens, one-way systems and other Covid-19 measures and had only had a few weeks’ use of these before they were shut down again as tighter restrictions were imposed.
Ian Mitty, the tenant at the Holts Arms in Billinge, said even when pubs had received the grants it was not necessarily equivalent to the amount that would have gone in the till had they not been shut.
Despite the support, he said landlords are facing an uncertain future, especially in areas like Wigan which have been subject to longer periods without being open due to high case rates across the North.
As well as that, he said the industry has been hit hard by insurance issues.
Mr Mitty said: “With the Greater Manchester restrictions we’ve had eight months of closure. I would say we’ve lost in the region of £30,000 to £40,000 in profit.
“The biggest problem has been insurance companies not paying out by saying that Covid-19 wasn’t a notifiable disease as it didn’t exist at the time the policy was written.
“One company’s clients went to the Supreme Court but they could only make that firm pay out, it wasn’t applicable across the whole industry. To me that’s the big scandal.
“On Government support we initially got £25,000. We thought that was good at first, but we’ve had to make it last. We only got £5,000 for the second lockdown in November and we’re supposed to get £12,000 next month. That’s supposed to last until reopening.
“All the support is welcome, of course, but it really doesn’t replace what we’ve lost in the last year.
“The other strand is furlough. That has been amazing but this time round we have to pay national insurance and pensions. We’ve got no income so we have to use the grant for that. It’s like they’re giving with one hand but taking away with the other.
“The support from Wigan Council has been good. When the money has been there to be paid out it has been paid, whereas colleagues around the country are still waiting for theirs.
“A lot of small businesses are just about hanging on. It’s going to be a long slog back and as at the moment landlords can’t evict anyone I am worried there will be a slow drip of pubs shutting.”
Peter Hampson, of Orrell-based Pier Fun Casinos, is another business owner who says receiving grant money does not necessarily mean there are no issues.
He pointed out that his business, which supplies Vegas-style entertainment for events, is wholly dependent on the fortunes of businesses such as Holland Hall and on the return of functions which attract large numbers of people.
Mr Hampson said: “My business is predominantly in the wedding industry so we have been absolutely decimated since the middle of March last year. It has just been shocking, we are struggling to survive. I’m having to put money in to keep going.
“The council has done what it can but the feeling is the Government has left the wedding industry to rot.
“We’ve had what we’ve been entitled to but it’s all connected. If Bill doesn’t survive that’s a venue we’ve lost. We need first-class venues for people to get married in so we can supply entertainment to them.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) spoke about the support that had been made available but said discretionary grant spending was overseen by the council.
A spokesperson said: “We know this is a very challenging period for businesses across the UK which is why the Government has provided an unprecedented £352bn package of support, including furlough, loan schemes, business rates holidays and VAT deferral – all extended recently in the Budget.
“We have provided more than £123m in grant funding to Wigan Council since the start of the pandemic to support businesses, including those that can remain open but are still impacted with grants. It is at the discretion of local authorities to use this government funding to support businesses in the way they see fit.”
Wigan Council said it has tried to help as many businesses as it can.
A spokesperson said: “From the outset of the pandemic Wigan quickly recognised how critical Business Grant was to our local economy and residents, and were both passionate about and fully committed to providing as much support as we can to our local businesses , as quickly as possible.
“Through this, and by mobilising multiple teams and utilising technology Wigan was one of the first authorities to begin allocating COVID-19 Grant funding to its businesses.
“This has been maintained throughout the year as we have continued to quickly allocate both Local Restrictions Support Grant (LRSG) funding and Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) funding provided through the Greater Manchester Enhanced Support package.
"Locally-led grant initiatives such as Retail Top Ups, Restaurant Christmas Payments, Closed Business Payments Top Ups and Vehicle-Based Business Grants has meant Discretionary funding has been allocated at a meaningful level and to as broad a section of the borough’s business base as the scheme would allow.”
“This sustained approach and commitment has led to over £100 million in grant funding being allocated to local businesses since April 2020, and we will continue to do everything we possibly can to support our local businesses, protect our residents’ jobs and safeguard our economy for the future.”
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