Economic Stimulus Package Update
The Assistant Director (Communities) presented this report to update Committee on progress with the Economic Stimulus package which was agreed at Full Council in February 2021.
The measures within the package are to support business recovery in response to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. The majority of these measures were to be funded out of the £3,088,725 of Additional Restrictions Grant allocated to Gravesham as part of the Government’s financial support to businesses. Funding was available for expenditure up to the end of March 2021 but that was subsequently extended to 31 July 2021 and if 100% was used by that date there would be an additional top-up of £692,120 which was achieved. The council has had to distribute in excess of thirteen rounds of covid grants and since the beginning of the year has distributed in excess of £12m to local businesses.
We are now directing the £692,120 ‘top up’ from Additional Restrictions Grant to support the remaining economic stimulus workstreams, including Adaptation Grants, 1-2-1 support, procurement workshops and vacant retail units grant.
The council made a commitment to participate in the Government’s Kickstart Scheme and to provide 34 work placements for young people for a period of six months. Within the last few weeks we have taken on 15 placements, five within the Operational Services Directorate, five within Housing Estate Management and five within the Housing Building Works Team. Also looking to roll out others in the offices in the coming weeks. Some placements are more work ready than others. We provide wrap around employment support linked with North Kent College. We have also appointed an Employability Co-ordinator to progress the scheme and match candidates with placements within the council.
Members raised a number of points and the Service Manager (Communities) and the Economic Development Manager responded:
· It would be useful to get some background on how much we have spent and what the outcomes have been so we can understand how effective the funds have been
· Funding to bring vacant retail premises into active use is still to go live plus the business start-ups as these have been put on hold until now. We want to focus where needs are greatest and where funding can best be used. We know where vacant units are and we need to confirm an application process in accordance with the Government guidance for Additional Restrictions Grant. We are putting those together at the moment. The allocation of £100k is aimed at reducing the vacant units which currently stand at 12.5% in the town centre and we are finding the best way to achieve that and we can report on that at a later date
· We don’t have feedback on how the previous grants were spent, our role was to distribute the grants to businesses who have been impacted by Covid. It may be possible to do a short survey to get some feedback
· For the new grants we will have the opportunity to assess specific project applications and long-term impact. We put in place checks to ensure they are appropriate receivers of the grant in the first place
· Members praised the commitment of the council around apprenticeships and participating in the Kickstart Scheme. Back in 2019 the council also signed up to a Social Mobility pledge and we need to push that across the borough
· With reference to the £10k for procurement workshops for local businesses, will they be done in person or hybrid delivery and is it something we are planning to deliver in-house or will we use external expertise? We would be linking in with someone who has expertise in procurement and it will be delivered on-line but we also appreciate face to face makes a huge difference as businesses aren’t taking up what is available and they need that reassurance and working together
· How do we know what we are getting in terms of bangs for bucks? Before Covid started we had estimated that we might lose a number of businesses and in fact our rate has been less than we originally anticipated with one of the reasons being the council’s ability in getting grants out and outreach work reaching smaller rural businesses that might need help
· How confident are you that there are digital hubs/networks that we can tie into to provide better links for businesses given changes in work patterns during the pandemic? How confident are you that £25k will help you achieve that aim? How do we know that Gravesham is the place where small to medium enterprises want to be because of where it’s located?
The Assistant Director (Communities) responded that we would look where we can make a start to get improvement and get a quick win where there is higher broadband capability and the work space that goes with that. We know we have space in the town and could put in a certain level of equipment to support businesses and once we know what the demand is we can work with that. This is something that we have already raised in St George’s particularly with the proximity with the station
· With Furlough ending do you think the vacancy rate will rise from 12.5%?
Normally in the run up to Christmas we see an increase in the take-up of units. It is anyone’s guess at the moment. Our main concern is in the St George’s Centre where there are a cluster of vacancies and we are seeking to reduce vacancies there. Elsewhere we have seen a take-up of vacant units, for example a number of new food operators in Queen Street. We know there is more impact from the pandemic to come and we are yet to see the full impact on the local economy, especially with the end of Furlough and its effect on local employment
· It is very difficult to talk about benefits that have come out of the pandemic but one has to be that through the grants schemes we now have the best picture of the local business community. How do we plan to utilise that data? Can we use emails to invite them to business events? How will that data affect our economic development going forward?
On every application we have tried to sign them up to our business network. The message has been that we are trying to build a business network come and join us. We have been thinking about what data we have captured. We have added 200 to the business network but those who haven’t joined we will invite them to join. We have been thinking about using one of our Kickstart placements to trawl through the list to create a more sophisticated profile
· Cllr Bob Lane asked if he could be invited to the next Business Network meeting as he has years of business experience and that was agreed
Members noted the information in the report.