Metro Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, recently joined senior accountants from the region at a Zoom meeting hosted by Leonard Curtis Business Solutions Group.

During the session he shared his thoughts on the impact of the coronavirus for the city region and called for businesses to apply for small grant funding as soon as possible. He also spoke of recovery strategies to ‘build back better’ and how fairer deals for essential workers made good business sense.

On the immediate demands of Covid-19 he had this to say: “It’s been really tough for everyone but we have so far been very focused on response to the health crisis, supporting hospitals and social care and GM has stood up well. We have done way better than others in some areas like central procurement on PPE for example. The team at MIDAS completely refocused onto PPE and have brought in 18 million items on their own initiative. That’s GM doing what it does best – finding solutions.

The problem in the early phase of this has been trying to deliver too much centrally, so then you don’t necessarily get the right solutions for GM, on things like PPE or testing. Some of the approach to business support falls into the same category, where we acknowledge people are working at pace, but not picking up on nuances of local needs. So the next phase has got to be led at city region level to get recovery right. It’s going to be different in every place and we need to respect that.

Standards guiding recovery

I have been very clear that we can’t have a region by region release from lockdown e.g. the London economy bursting back first – that would give it an unfair advantage. We are saying this should be a nationally driven process, possibly looking at sectors, although that is a challenge in itself.

What I plan to advance now re businesses in GM is to allow a release from lockdown based on standards. So if your business can demonstrate that you are social distancing your staff and customers, using hand sanitiser etc, then you can go back to work.

This feels better than arbitrary judgements at a national level, which would be dangerous for the GM economy. If the hospitality sector is at the back of the queue for return from lockdown that will hurt our city centre badly. Standards guiding recovery rather than sectors feels a better way of giving business a route back.

Questions around business support need to be considered alongside this. Arrangements that have been stood up in the last few weeks are good in many ways and I have praised the Chancellor for this speed of work, but I am pressing him now for payment of furlough this month.

This is critical for lots of business who can’t wait until May. Furloughing has gone well so far but payments need to go out the door this month.  Then we need to change and adapt the furlough scheme as we go forwards, based on decisions on how we return from lockdown. Some may need to call on it for longer than others.

It’s not perfect. There are still gaps for self-employed people and those who occupy shared working space, and company directors have been unfairly hit. There is a lack of support for them.

Small grant funding – apply now

We have tried to help locally by creating our own funds via The Growth Company, which are less stringent than national funds, to get grants out the door to people. The small grant funding is being run by our 10 local councils, who have now given out £280m of the £650m they were asked to do.

We have to bear in mind that local councils have stood up the system in a matter of weeks and the process does vary a bit.  I am afraid we have had high levels of fraud in some areas with Greater Manchester Police involved which has made councils less willing to issue the money. But overall we have done well.

And we still need to get the message across that there are eligible businesses out there that have not yet applied for these grants and the cut-off point is coming soon, by end of the month.

Arguably recovery is a bigger challenge and there are lots of questions around how it should be done. I will be making the right arguments for business to help survival – that’s our goal – to try and minimise job losses and company closures.  

Build Back Better

On learnings and how we can avoid this happening again Andy believes GM can play a leading role in the thinking and doing things differently. “We have developed a campaign called Build Back Better and what we are saying is throughout this period there have been benefits e.g. cleaner air, less traffic congestion, people doing more exercise, getting involved in home working.

We can’t go back to business as usual. So if we are going to give local stimulus to the economy let’s give a grant now to SMEs and taxi companies to switch to electric vehicles, benefiting them and investing in the right kind of behaviours for the future. Or look at extending digital access. We have current funding for a full fibre roll out covering 20-30% of GM, so why not go for the whole place. Build it out and build it quick so you capture benefits of digital home working.

On using the moment to spark debate on how we value essential workers Andy was particularly vocal. “We do have to reassess the value of work and whose work is being properly valued, like the people we are all relying on while we are safe at home. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have said again yesterday that these essential workers are the most underpaid in society. This is an issue. If people who are essential are not getting a living wage that does not make business sense to me.

We have set up the Good Employment Charter in GM which is around improving pay and job security and we do have to have a debate around these things as we come out of this moment.

Let’s reset the dial a bit to make it better for everybody and better for business as well.  GM has a centuries-old tradition of economic and social progress going hand in hand so I think we are well placed to lead the debate.  I am as pro-business and entrepreneurial as anybody, but I think what Covid-19 has flushed out is that things do not work out as well as they should for everyone and that is something we need to change.”

Further information on Leonard Curtis Business Solutions Group can be found here.

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