The Small Business Minister answers your questions

10 Sep 2020

Small businesses create the heart and soul of our cities and form the backbone of our economy. But the impact of COVID-19 has been severe on small businesses and to rebuild a strong economy, we need to ensure they not only survive, but thrive.

To find out, Appear Here’s CEO Ross Bailey sat down with the Small Business Minister Paul Scully. For this exclusive event, Ross asked questions posed by our community of small businesses on issues such as financial support, starting a business during COVID, and the impact of a no-deal Brexit.

Ross: What should businesses be looking at right now in terms of the current support available?

Paul: We’ve done a lot of work setting up the Job Retention Scheme and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBLIS) which ends on 30th September. There’s still plenty of time until 4 November to apply for the Bounceback Loan Scheme and another chance to apply for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, which remains open for applications for the second and final grant until 19 October.

We’re doing the Rose Review for people who have traditionally found it hard to access finance, so now 40% of our loans are going to women and 20% to owners from a BAME background. Once we can get through to help businesses, we can then move onto rewarding them through the Job Retention Bonus Scheme or getting £2,000 for every new apprentice they hire under the new £2 billion Kickstart Scheme.

The Furlough Scheme is being phased out at the end of October, this is being done to reopen the economy by giving people the confidence and the joy to come back out. If you’re unsure what you’re eligible for, there is a Business Support Finder which will illustrate everything that’s available for you, now and in the next stage. Furlough is clearly the business word of this year, but I hope that pivot will be the business word for next year.

Ross: Why is the high street important to a city and what can be done to encourage a revival of our communities?

Paul: The local high street really is the heart of the community. The people who work in those stores are often residents themselves, so if you start to hollow out the high street you really risk hollowing out the community. Our first priority has always been to save lives, but protecting people’s livelihoods is also so crucial.

In terms of encouraging revival, we had the ‘Shop Local’ scheme over the summer, as well as ‘Enjoy Summer Safely’ where we made it easier for hospitality businesses to expand their premises onto the pavement. This was all part of giving people that confidence again.

Ross: Retail vacancies are now at the highest ever, with one in ten shops already empty. Surely there’s an opportunity here for people to start new businesses. What support is there for new entrepreneurs?

Paul: There’s two things that I would suggest: the British Business Bank has been going since 2012 offering start up loans, and has just offered its 75,000th to a small bakery in Wales. That’s a great way to access finance if you’re just starting, as well as the £1 billion Future High Streets Fund. The first step should always be to link up with your local authority or growth hub.

Ross: The current narrative we’re hearing in the press is that retail is dying, but we’re seeing people opening up more and more stores. What do you think is behind this?

A lot of businesses have noticed that having a local specialist shop can really add value to their online business. If you do it right, you can work both online and offline together. For example, I’ve bought wine online, but the company I buy from also has shops – there’s nothing quite like going in and speaking to someone. You can have long conversations rather than clicking through a website. Online is convenient, but offline is where the personalisation is.

Ross: Many businesses are working hard to ensure their stores meet health standards, but councils are telling customers to not socialise in public venues. There seems to be mixed messages here, can you explain?

Paul: It’s difficult, obviously nobody wants to see a second lockdown. We learned a lot of lessons from the lockdown in Leicester and now we can put in these measures in certain areas where we need a bit of intervention. We’re lowering gatherings from 30 to six because so many of the infections are from informal gatherings – from illegal raves to meeting in the park. The new measures are not happening because of shops or offices.

Ross: How are you planning to view the role of community ownership in a meaningful way?

Paul: That community aspect of ownership is really important. My local area had a lot of problems a few years ago so members of the community came together to save a pub that now wins awards every year. Getting a community involved can be really beneficial for a business as well as the local area. We’re trialing the Open Door Pilot in five town centres, where we’re matching landlords with local community groups – these are initiatives I really want to build on.

Ross: Many landlords are still demanding rent from businesses who are unable to pay due to lockdown, what can the government do to support them?

Paul: What landlords were trying to do was evict their tenants, and when they couldn’t do that, they were trying aggressive rent recovery. In response to this, we put a moratorium on landlords and built a code of conduct, working with landlords and tenants to find a middle road that could benefit both – we want to keep landlords invested in the high street. Right now, we’re doing a fundamental business rates review to make rents more accessible for small businesses.

Ross: How will the implications of a no-deal Brexit impact retailers? What advice do you have?

Paul: We want to get a deal, it makes sense to be trading freely with our nearest nations. If we don’t get what we need, we need to be prepared to step away. While this won’t give businesses the certainty they want, I recommend subscribing to our business emails for real-time information so that you can react quickly.

Ross: Let’s end on a positive note. After every recession there’s been a surge in growth of business. People are using this moment to follow their dream, what advice do you have for them?

Paul: First of all, you need to consider how you can have a sustainable business living with the virus – it could still be with us in two years time. Also, seek support, not just from funds or CEO’s, but in a peer to peer network. Meet with other business owners who are perhaps six months ahead of you in their business journey and learn from them. We’re also partnering with a business called Enterprise Nation who provide a lot of business support. Remember that this is an event that’s still ongoing: things can still change. If you’re aware of those risks, you can manage them, that’s what any small business owner needs to do.