Agenda item

Michael Firmager asked the Executive Member for Business and Economic Development the following question:



Has Wokingham Borough Council done all it could to support businesses during the pandemic effect of Covid-19 and the lockdowns?





Has Wokingham Borough Council done all it could to support businesses during the pandemic effect of Covid-19 and the lockdowns?



Firstly I would like to acknowledge the devastating impact that this pandemic  has had on our national economy including very many of our local businesses who have my heartfelt sympathy at this extremely challenging time.


In these unprecedented circumstances I believe that the Council has really gone the extra mile to try and support businesses as much as possible in a myriad of different ways.


In terms of direct financial support the Council has to date disbursed around £42.5million of grants and are currently administering eight separate grant streams. In the fortnight up to 22nd January alone we have paid out a further 365 grants totalling £2.5m with a further 380 applications in the process of being assessed.


I recognise the number of grants can be confusing and so have asked that the website and application process is made as simple as possible for businesses. That means that if a business is not eligible for a mandatory grant it will automatically be considered for a discretionary grant and, if it is still not eligible, details will be passed through to our Economic Development Team to contact the business direct to understand their situation and what other support could be offered; perhaps through the Berkshire Business Growth Hub or similar.


I have also been keen to ensure that we publicise the grants as much as possible and are also pro-active in contacting businesses who may be eligible and encouraging them to apply. However, there are no doubt some businesses who may not be aware or for whom the current grants are not suitable, and I would urge them to check the Grants page on our website or get in touch with our Economic Development Team or the Growth Hub to discuss that situation.


An extensive survey of businesses was also carried out to better understand need and the issues faced, especially with regard to our small businesses which are the mainstay of our local economy.  Issues raised were followed up with 1:1 conversations and additional advice and support wherever possible.  This has included close links with and signposting businesses to the Growth Hub for specialist advice and access to a range of other national financial help packages. A follow up survey will hopefully go out in the next couple of weeks to ensure that we have an accurate and up to date picture.


With changing restrictions across different tiers and timescales the Council has also sought to assist businesses to deal with the complexity of regulations so that they can trade safely and give confidence to their clients and customers. 


The work of the PPP, the Public Protection Partnership, has been supplemented by our deployment of Covid support marshals to assist not only with the compliance but also to signpost to further advice and provide a reassuring presence to encourage customers back into our main town centres when it was appropriate to do so.  Indeed, ensuring our town centres could re-open safely has been a major focus of our efforts to support as conducive a business environment as possible whilst ensuring that this could be done safely.  


With the Christmas period being particularly important to many small traders I am also really pleased that we created the virtual Christmas market which ran for 38 days.  This was a huge success and provided a platform for traders to continue to trade and their customers to access some ‘Christmas cheer’ in tough times.  Feedback from both the ‘stallholders’ and customers has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that we are looking at options of running a similar event over the Easter period and also for building on our ‘Shop Local’ message used throughout the pandemic.


Of course, the current national lockdown has further challenged our business community and as well as continuing to distribute grants as widely and as quickly as we can we need to keep working on identifying and targeting where support, monetary or otherwise, is most needed. We have built a strong partnership with business representatives from Wokingham, Woodley and Twyford etc who have been very effective in spreading communications and providing important feedback. In addition, the newly refocused Wokingham Business Taskforce has brought together representatives from across the business community to help shape and monitor our response and recovery plans and actions.   


With infection rates in Wokingham starting to fall and vaccination numbers increasing we can hopefully see a light at the end of the tunnel and can begin to look forward to recovery.  However, our hard working businesses still need and deserve all the help we can give them and I can assure you we will continue to do what we can to support them.


Supplementary Question

Can you just confirm to me that Wokingham Borough Council is continuing to give support to businesses?


Supplementary Answer

We are putting more staff in and hopefully we will get a much closer relationship with these businesses and also we have a task and recovery group which is chaired by local businesses so we are doing, I think, a pretty good job with what we have got.