The Budget – Are ARG Grants the answer?

It was announced in The Budget on Wednesday that a package of ‘restart grants’ will be put in place to support businesses during the phased reopening of the country.  

As we reported earlier in the week, ‘The grants will be allocated to businesses based on the value of its property: Properties with a rateable value (that is the estimated annual rent) of £15,000 or under will receive £8,000; for those worth between £15,000 and £51,000, the grant is £12,000; and those with a value of £51,000 or over will be eligible for a grant of £18,000 and an additional £425million has been added to the Additional Restrictions Grants (ARG) fund.  

It is this short message about an ‘additional £425million’ sentence that sits neatly after the big news about grants for businesses with premises, that is a huge red flag to us here at NCASS.  

We have been encouraging our members to apply for ARG grants since their formation in November 2020. 

These are grants that came out of pushing Government to find a solution for businesses without premises and/or who were part of the events sector supply chain.  

Now here is the but and it is a significant one…BUT ever since their release we have battling with the obstacles and the restrictions (oh the irony) that they have come with simply because of one very important word – discretionary. These grants are discretionary and therefore come with a lot of grey areas and what’s more, there is no coherent approach from the 343 local authorities in England. Essentially it has become somewhat of a post code lottery. 

There have been huge challenges with all grants; from timescales, ease of applying, duplicating applications, new systems to register for and much more – it hasn’t been plain sailing for anyone applying for a grant, even when the allocations are set and based on business rates and even when the council already has all this information.  

There have been even bigger problems with the Additional Restriction Grants. The name for a start does not really make clear what this scheme is for so let’s start at the beginning with what they were intended to do and hopefully clear that up.  

The Additional Restrictions Grant was a discretionary funding pot and the events sector, including suppliers like event and festival caterers and mobile caterers without a premises are specifically mentioned in how Local Authorities can administer these support grants in paragraph 23 of the Government guidance. The whole document can be found here 

Local Authorities can determine how much funding to provide to businesses from the ARG funding provided, and exactly which businesses to target. However, we encourage Local Authorities to develop discretionary grant schemes to help those businesses which – while not legally forced to close – are nonetheless severely impacted by the restrictions put in place to control the spread of Covid-19. This could include – for example – businesses which supply the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors, or businesses in the events sector”.    

The word encourage here was not helpful because along with the word discretionary, it leaves the doors wide open for saying no to businesses who apply. Some local authorities have been very supportive and have allocated these grants to the businesses they were intended to, some only held the ARG grants open for 2 weeks without promoting that they were even open, some made applicants jump through impossible hoops and some refused application outright based on a complete and utter lack of understanding of the events sector, its supply chain, mobile businesses, and the fact that a whole season of trade had been lost. *  

Now, nearly 4 months after they were introduced, the biggest elephant in the room now is that 87% of the £1.4billion pot has not been allocated yet. This, coupled with the information we shared on the 18th of Feb showing the 34 local authorities in England who have given out ARG grants (let’s not forget – there are 343 local authorities in total), goes to show indisputably that there are huge numbers of businesses across hundreds of local authorities who have not received the support intended for them. This is an out and out failure on the Government’s ability to communicate effectively with its local authorities, to enforce the need for these grants and moreover, to support the businesses within each local authority that are crying out for help.  

In conclusion, there is an overwhelming sense that the ARG grants are not working and yet it seems from the reports in the news today, that the Government intend to stick with the ARG grants, topping them up by £425million.  

If 87% of the £1.4billion pot has not been allocated and an additional £425million is being added, then that means there will be over £1.26 billion left – it’s glaringly obvious that this is a lot of money that could help a lot of people.  

Let’s go back to the original headlines from early on in this article – restart grants, grants for businesses based on the value of its property, up to £18,000 in grants for hospitality businesses. Now, lets go back to the sentence that followed: An additional £425million has been added to the Additional Restrictions Grants (ARG) fund. So, that’s between £8k and £18k in grants for businesses with premises and a discretionary ARG grant for those who don’t. That doesn’t add up.  

We have continually called for change in how our sector is supported – for members who have premises the prospect of a fixed grant is positive and offers some comfort. However, time and time again, our members who are mobile, who work seasonally, who are part and parcel of the events & festival sector supply chain, are let down.  

In our latest survey, 1/3 of respondents said they would go bust within weeks if they weren’t offered financial support. These are ordinarily healthy businesses who, simply haven’t had anywhere to trade – with no weddings, no festivals, no events, there is no trade for these businesses and the ARG grants seem to be a way of pacifying our sector without giving these businesses any real thought. We have pushed for grants based on turnover not whether you have a premises or not and need a level playing field now as we walk along the roadmap for recovery from the pandemic.  

The case for sector specific grants has been part of our work day in day out and although the ARG grants were a welcome source of help at the time it seems that the evidence is strongly stacked against the case that they are actually fit for purpose now. Mark Laurie, a director here at NCASS commented that   

“The idea that the future of mobile catering and the wider events sector might rely on ARG grants is chilling. These grants have not worked. The idea that the events industry wasn’t forced to close is ludicrous. We closed in good faith, received no financial support last year and now it seems we get to fight for scraps from councils, the vast majority of whom did not engage with the first round and on the whole refused money to the businesses it was intended for” 

Our campaign #EmpowerIndependents and Mark’s recent article shouts about giving the right financial support and enabling businesses to bounce back ‘Now is the time for government, both national and local across the whole of the UK to be open minded about the future… We want to contribute, and we want to thrive again, but to do so we will need the help of government; help to trade and enough working capital to get us to the starting line.  

Adding more to the ARG pot and putting the fate of tend of thousands of businesses in the hands of local authority departments who are being guided by the woolly words ‘discretionary’ and ‘encourage’ does not feel clear or secure it even makes me question whether local authorities have even followed the advice given at all?  

We need sector specific grants, grants based on turnover, grants that will help businesses bounce back, that are fair and that are administered correctly, and we need Government to provide these parameters. It is not good enough and certainly doesn’t fool us.  

If you want to tell us about your experience in applying for a grant, get in touch via [email protected]

*If you are in the process of applying or have already and been rejected keep writing to the leader of your council and your MP, be persistent – there is money available but it really shouldn’t be as difficult as it is to access it.  

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