Businesses call for flexibility in Government support schemes to help them survive

Economy Minister Diane Dodds has said a £10,000 cash grant to small businesses could be extended to manufacturers.
Ryan McAleer

NORTHERN Ireland firms who have fallen between the cracks of the current wave of coronavirus support from government have called for greater flexibility to allow their businesses to survive.

The Department for the Economy has already announced cash grants of £10,000 and £25,000 for small businesses, while the UK Government has said it will provide the guarantee for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), which is operated by the British Business Bank.

But some small businesses have warned that they will collapse within weeks if the schemes are not expanded.

Some 6,775 payments from the £10,000 scheme were issued last Thursday, with another 3,225 issued on Tuesday. Another large batch is expected to be issued later this week.

Businesses with a ratable value of £15,000 or below qualify, but premises classed as industrial are currently exempt.

One person who runs a craft workshop in mid Ulster, exporting high-value goods internationally, told the Irish News that he has had no fresh orders in four weeks and will simply be unable to meet overheads without support.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds suggested on Tuesday night that her department will consider expanding the £10,000 grant to around 2,500 small manufacturers. It’s understood that move would involve other Stormont departments.

There have also been calls for the £25,000 grant to be broadened. The scheme is set to be paid out to retail, tourism and hospitality firms with a ratable value of £15,001 to £50,000.

But unlike England and Wales, leisure businesses here do not qualify.

Pauric Grimes, who runs The Edge gym in Augher, Co Tyrone, said his business faces collapse within two months.

Just under two years ago, the fitness professional moved his business into a larger 12,500 sq ft premises in the Clogher Valley village. That has put him just over the threshold for the £10,000 grant.

The business had already taken the decision to close four days before Boris Johnson called for all gyms to shut last month, pausing payments for its 250 members.

“Unless we get some sort of support we won’t survive,” said Mr Grimes. “We have zero income and we have rent and equipment leased to pay.

“When we moved out of our smaller premises, we took this on knowing we wouldn’t make any money for the first three years until everything is paid off. But this is only a year and a half in.

“Leisure is included in the criteria for the rest of the UK. I just can’t understand why the Northern Ireland criteria hasn’t been extended to leisure.”

Meanwhile, Brian Morris, who owns the Glenavon House Hotel in Cookstown, has said his business is among many local firms who had been unable to avail of the UK Government-backed CBILS.

The popular venue, which closed on March 20, has furloughed around 70 full-time and around 50 part-time staff under the UK Government's job retention scheme, which should see them receive 80 per cent of their salaries.

But the hotelier said cash flow remains the biggest issue for the business.

The Glenavon House Hotel in Cookstown

“When I spoke to my bank, out of 300 people who had applied last week, just 11 or 12 are going to be eligible for the loan scheme,” he said.

Mr Morris said the hotel had resorted to taking out a loan outside of the scheme.

“We are continuing to pay the staff but we are hopeful the job retention scheme portal will open very soon and they pay out quick, otherwise our cash flow is going to be stretched extremely tight.”

To date, Stormont has been allocated £912m to tackle Covid-19. Around £100m has been allocated to giving businesses a three month rates holiday, with £370m set aside for the cash grant schemes.

Around £273m has yet to be allocated. It’s understood that officials are currently developing proposals that could see an expansion of the existing cash schemes.

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