Letter to Merton Council in regards to hospitality grants and rate relief signed by businesses across the borough

Dear Stephen Alambritis, 

Local authorities across the country have been given a broad range of discretionary powers and considerable funding to support businesses that have been severely impacted by Covid 19. Many local authorities have recognised their duty to protect and support their local economies in this time of need, and by doing so they will give their residents (and the services they need) a greater opportunity to recover when this crisis is over. Council leaders across the country have demonstrated dynamism, instilling the importance to be enterprising in their efforts to support business.  Without a thriving economy, they know they will not have the funds in the future to support the residents they have been elected to serve.

The Government has put social distancing measures in place to save lives. This has meant asking sectors of the economy to cease trading. In order to take this unprecedented step the Government have provided local authorities with over £5 billion worth of funding, and discretionary powers for rate relief, with the clear instruction to save their local economies. In this fast moving crisis, the Government provided local authorities with guidance, with the caveat that the list of types of businesses stated were for illustrative guidance as supposed to prescriptive guidance. It would be impossible to name every type of business in an economy as complex as the UK’s. Through your past experience as being the Head of Public Affairs for Federation of Small Businesses, you must surely understand this.  

Case examples of where councils have not shied away from taking a broader support service towards Event Supply Companies include: 

  • Birmingham – waiving of business rates for AV companies exceeded the £51,000 business rates limit
  • TruStaging awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Basildon Council
  • Entec Sound and Light awarded the full £25,000 and business rates relief by Ealing Council, based on their hire desk being open to the public and therefore classed as “Retail”. 
  • Production AV awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Cheltenham Council.
  • 3D production awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Leeds Council.
  • MG Event & Sound Ltd awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by North Warwickshire Borough Council.
  • Fusion Sound & Light awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Croydon Council.
  • Fusion Event Support awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Merton Council (although Merton have since stated this was a mistake and intend to request for this to be repaid back) 
  • Nexus Dry hire awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Cheshire East
  • Undefined Group awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Gateshead Council 
  • Stage & Studio Services awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Shropshire Council 
  • GLS Lighting awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Southampton Council 
  • DM Audio Ltd awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by East Lothian Council 
  • SWG3 awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Glasgow Council 
  • Missling Link awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Eastbourne Council
  • Steel The Scene awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Tandridge District Council 
  • TT Tents (Marquee Hire) awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief by Basingstoke Council

This is just a small snapshot of councils supporting companies similar to ours. These councils are taking the initiative to adopt a broad range of reasons to award grant and rate relief i.e. Steel The Scene were awarded support based on being a business that works in the event based / hospitality and exhibition industry. Whilst others are being awarded based on their properties being open to the public for meetings, appointments and/or training classes/lessons.

Whilst many council leaders have been an inspiration, under your leadership, Merton continues to be blinded by narrow interpretations of their responsibility. 

Many businesses that were forced to close, granted assistance, and had their rates bill scrapped were not only were able to continue to trade throughout the lockdown (many pubs and restaurants were able to provide take out services, all be it a limited income – but an income no less). Come the 4th of July recipients of the assistance are all permitted to open their doors again and start making money. But the industries likely to be the last out of the stalls to a normal return to business are ours. Many businesses are in receipt of a full year’s exemption on the rates when effectively they may only have lost one financial quarter’s income. Whilst we are potentially facing a loss of income for at least a year (if not longer), to date, we have had nothing.

Merton has long been a destination for event companies to locate their business premises. In turn event companies have helped Merton to be a thriving local authority, providing recruitment opportunities, contributing to local supply chains, giving back to local communities and funding services through business rates. Event companies in Merton have a far reaching impact, not only to the local area, but also to London and the whole country. We provide the means for businesses to interact with their clients, for culture and the arts to flourish, for museums to be open for free, for the country to host international leaders, and for people to celebrate the most basic of human emotions, love.

It is not only event companies that Merton is failing to support. The UK’s economy is diverse. Many companies do not fit solely into one category and business premises will have multiple uses.  Language schools in Merton for instance provide far more than an educational service. They also provide accommodation, encouraging wealthy visitors from overseas to spend money within the local area, similar to a hotel. Physiotherapists provide a health service but on a retail transactional basis to the public, an market research agencies in Merton also provide a hospitality service – In fact all our properties are visited by the public for meetings, appointments and/or training classes/lessons – Our properties all therefore have a retail/hospitality purpose and therefore would be recognised by other councils as being eligible for grant and/or rate relief.

Below is a list of the councils providing business rates relief to the English language centres in their boroughs.  Some, such as Bournemouth and Brighton, have about 20 centres located in their borough:

  • Bath and North East Somerset Council
  • City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council 
  • Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council 
  • Brighton & Hove City Council 
  • Canterbury City Council 
  • Cardiff Council (Cygnor Caerdydd) 
  • Cheshire West and Chester Council 
  • Ealing Council 
  • Fokestone and Hythe District Council 
  • Harrow Council 
  • Lewes and Eastbourne Councils
  • Newcastle City Council 
  • North Devon Council 
  • Stratford upon Avon District Council 
  • Torbay Council 
  • Warwick District Council 
  • City of York Council 

Here are details of viewing facilities identical to Plus Four Market Research Limited/’The Qualitative Lab and that have received 100% zero Rates from the Councils concerned:

  • –  Westminster City Council:  i-view London and also Spectrum London
  • –  Birmingham City Council:  MIS Studios
  • –  Leeds City Council:  Spectrum Leeds and also i-view Leeds
  • –  Stockport Metropolitan Council:  Aspect Viewing
  • –  Broxtowe Borough Council (Nottingham):  Talking Shop

Here are the details of physiotherapy clinics that have received support: 

  • Wandsworth Council: awarded the full £25,000 grant and business rates relief 

Our understanding is that Merton for the past few weeks have been considering sending back £3 million of grant money supplied by central government. Given the severe impact business like ours are suffering how can this be considered or justified?  We are lead to believe there is still over £2 million of funding remaining in the pot – clearly demonstrating the council have not exhausted all their efforts to keep its local economy alive. Through your leadership a negative narrow approach to this crisis exists within the council. An approach that lacks any sense of initiative, one that hides from any responsibility to adopt a broader range of support, as permitted by central government.  As demonstrated already, there is scope and ample precedent for Merton to support our businesses, but sadly there is a lack of will to do so. This abject failure and lack of will to take any action ultimately lies with you. 

The council have used excuses of there being the lack of written guidance from central government. However the government have categorically given local authorities, in writing, the scope and power to take a broader approach:

“The Government has published guidance on the types of businesses that would be eligible for the Expanded Retail Discount. The list is not exhaustive and it is for local authorities to determine whether particular properties not listed are broadly similar in nature to those that are included and, if so, to consider them eligible for the relief.”

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Why under your leadership have the council failed to take a broader interpretation when so many across the country are doing so? For those under the £51,000 threshold, the council still has funds to award the £25,000 grant per premises and rate relief. For those above the threshold, the council has the power to grant rate relief. The council has the funds, scope and power to support us, so why does it lack the will to do so?  

We want to stress that all our businesses are the types of business, that have elsewhere, been awarded support through the Retail & Hospitality Grant and Rate Relief scheme. The support this scheme has offered our competitors is what we desperately need. 

We are aware that there is a discretionary grant in place, however the council has also adopted a far too narrow approach to this. For instance the council is granting priority to businesses and organisations that demonstrate they support closing the equality gap between the east and west of the borough. The purpose of this grant is to support businesses that have been severely affected by Covid 19 and have fallen through the cracks of support. It is not a tool to be used by local authorities to address pre existing issues. The discretionary grant should not be conflated. Further to this the level of support the council is willing to offer, up to £10,000 or under, is unlikely to make the impact we desperately need. The council has stated that only in exceptional circumstances will it award a £25,000 grant. Can you explain how our circumstances are anything but exceptional? 

We appreciate the discretionary pot is far more limited and the council has stated that it wants to support as many businesses it can. The easiest way to do this is to adopt a broader approach to the Retail & Hospitality Grant and Rate Relief scheme, where there is ample precedent set by other local authorities, and over £2 million worth of support still remaining. By supporting us through the Retail & Hospitality Grant and Rate Relief scheme the council will have more capacity available to suport a broader range of business elsewhere across Merton. 

For every councillor reading or hearing this it must surely be of an enormous concern to you, the sheer number of job losses that are being announced across the media. We ask you, why did you seek to be elected? 

Presumably you wish to make a difference. You have a choice. When this crisis is over – do you want to be able to look back and know that you ensured the council used every possible resource available to save the local economy, provided the means for companies to diversify, and tried to save as many jobs as possible? 

There is still over £2million worth of unspent funding available and a range of powers the council could adopt if it had the will to do so. We urge you to encourage Stephen Alambritis to find the will to start taking action.

For every member of the GLA reading this we ask you to consider how can London remain a thriving world centre for culture and education? How will the deprived inner city child have access to museums, galleries and public spaces for free, when the corporate events providing the revenue streams no longer have a healthy supply network? How will Londoners have a choice a health services that enable them to return to work and in turn continue to contribute to London’s economy? We are aware that the problems faced in Merton are not unique and companies like ours are facing the same lack of will from many of London’s local authorities. 

We therefore ask that you please reconsider your decisions on each of these companies listed below. You do have the power, the scope and funding to make a difference.

Signed by:

White Light is based in South Wimbledon and pre-Covid employed 260 staff with a revenue of over £40M from supplying technical services to theatres, events and broadcasts. The majority of these staff are based in SW19 and live locally. Revenue has reduced by 90% overnight and already 25% of the staff are on notice of redundancy.

Bryan Raven

Oxygen Event Services Ltd is an event hire company directly employing 15 staff and provides work for hundreds of freelancers, including supporting those have suffered from homelessness. Before Covid 19 we were successfully growing, servicing event production and wedding contracts for many of London’s most treasured venues and building a portfolio of high profile events including President Obama’s last official engagement in the UK with a turnover of £2.5 million. With on going high fixed costs and no support we are now facing making at least 50% of our workforce redundant. We have seen our turnover fall by 100% since lockdown began. We have not been able to secure any future deposits, and the events we did have confirmed (wedding and corporate) have postponed to next year and it is now looking highly unlikely that we will not see any Christmas work which provides us with a quarter of our turnover for the year. Without any grant or rate relief we are facing closure.  

Jessica Gray

Intent Productions Ltd is a marquee hire business that specializes in Stretch Tents. We generate most of our income from live outdoor events and festivals primarily over summer. The outbreak of Covid 19 could not have happened at a worse time for our industry. Having just ‘survived’ the seasonal downturn in our sector, cash reserves were very low towards the end of March, but we would under normal circumstances be gathering deposits for the year ahead. These have mostly been returned. Although the furlough scheme is helping us stand still, other costs like rent, rates and other fixed costs are not going away. The council can, but seemingly won’t help by providing rate relief to my industry.  Sadly the restrictions on the events industry being lifted is nowhere in sight and there is an impossibility of performance to generate an income. When the restrictions are lifted, we would have missed our season and the opportunity to put on enough economic fat to ride out the winter. 

 We are (we were) a successful local company who has had our annual turnover of £1.8 Million decimated. We employ 10 full time staff and around an additional 40-50 local freelancers during the summer months.

Carl Louw

Velvet Living is a supplier of furniture and AV equipment, and entertainment to the events industry, both corporate and private. We employ 17 full time staff and numerous freelancers, many of whom both live and work in the Borough. In 2019 we had 1,320 events – and in 2020,  we will have less than 200 – we had a strong start to the year but now have no bookings.  85% of our annual income is earned during the summer months; with no opportunity to do our business, and with no support from the Council we are facing the reality of imminent redundancies. We had a strong business, and believe the events industry will return to full strength next year, but in the short term we need the Council to help. 

Nicola Akroyd

Physiocentric is a physiotherapy business that has existed in the village for over 20 years, and helps the health of 12,000 Merton residents annually. Due to government social distancing measures and edict from our professional body we were forced to close, and our client base has fallen from 230 a week to about 20 clients, via remote consultation from our own homes. As such, we have virtually no income but enormously high fixed costs, including rent of £48,000 and £21000 on our 2 buildings pa. We are currently losing several thousand pounds per week because of this crisis and have no financial capacity to withstand this catastrophic situation. Without help, we will be forced to close and make my staff redundant. This will have enormous impact on the 5 full-time and the 7 consultant physios.

We therefore appeal to Merton in a state of desperation and are pleading with you to help our business survive. As Council Leader Stephen Alambritis himself writes on the Merton website – “Our business community is the lifeblood of Merton and it is vital that local businesses, particularly smaller businesses that are especially vulnerable, are given the help they need to survive the coming downturn.”

Chris Smith. 

Fisher Productions and Dobson Sound Productions are based in South Wimbledon and both established over 30 years ago. Between them they employ over 45 full time staff and numerous freelancers. Specialising in supplying production and technical services to live events we had forecast a turnover of over £7.5M for 2020. Following the outbreak revenue decreased immediately by over 95% and with the majority of our work being in the sectors with on going government restrictions, it is not expected to return until after the most profitable part of the year has passed. With no assistance or rates relief, we will be faced with making 70% of the workforce redundant.

Chris Clay 

Key Structures Ltd is a marquee hire business located in Wimbledon Park and established in 2008. 14 full time staff are currently employed and during a normal summer season work is provided for up to 100 freelance employees. From March 2020 revenue has decreased by 80%-90% on average with the majority of work being in sectors that have faced the strictest and longest lasting government restrictions (Mass participation events, sporting events, private parties, weddings & corporate events). The business is seasonal with the majority of revenue accrued between May & October. We face coming out of the low season, missing all revenue during our profitable season and then returning to another low season. With no assistance or rates relief, we will be faced with making 30% of the workforce redundant.

Charlie Spall 

Blackout are a drapes and rigging company supplying the live events industry employing 55 people who like other companies most people live in the borough Covid we were on course to turnover 5.5 million this year. Our turnover for the last 3 months has reduced by 98%.

We expect to reduce our staff level by 30%. we were 30 years old this year and we have been in Merton for 20 years. 

Chris Brain 

Plus Four Market Research Limited/’The Qualitative Lab’:  losing income (100%) for ‘The Qualitative Lab’ is severely risking the future of my business, after over 40 years in Wimbledon. Our building is specifically designed (primary use) to receive and cater for the public visiting for research, plus we provide hospitality (food and drink). This research viewing facility – ‘The Qualitative Lab’ – has been closed in accordance with the Government instruction that public facilities cannot trade. Quite simply we need money to be able to continue to employ people (12 staff) once the furlough scheme finishes; it is most unlikely that sufficient business will have returned in time to avoid redundancies. We are working hard to save the business and need support.  

Peter Allan 

Wimbledon School of English has been in Merton since 1964.  We have a turnover of approximately 6 million p.a and employ 45 members of staff, many of who are local.  We work with 250 host families in the borough, providing them with valuable income, as well as local businesses such as taxi companies, coach companies, hotels, cleaning companies, laundry providers, gardeners, printers and the café which supplies our catering.  We welcome about 2000 adults from overseas on short-term courses to Merton every year, and they spend £5-6 million per year on accommodation, food, shopping and leisure activities. In addition in our examination centre we provide public examinations for about 5000 candidates per year including local residents as well as visitors from boroughs throughout London.  Our revenue has reduced by 96% and we are not expecting to even reach breakeven point until 2022 at the earliest.

Jane Dancaster 

Milner School of English, Wimbledon is one of three well-established accredited English Language schools in the borough. We contribute to the local community by attracting students to spend in local businesses and by working with 150 host families providing them with valuable income. We welcome over 800 students every year to Merton, around 50% come directly from overseas and 50% come from the local community in the form of local workers, relatives of residents, au pairs etc as well as offering scholarships to refugees. We are open for the community. We are on the ‘High Street’. Our need for classroom space incurs relatively high business rates and therefore we do not qualify for many of the government schemes. Our turnover was just under £1 million last year, employing ten to twenty people throughout the year but we currently have no income and are making redundancies. We know that many other language schools in areas such as Bournemouth and Canterbury and have been granted business rates relief.

Julia Clarke

Cube Communications (UK) Ltd. We’re an events company in the drinks trade employing 12 people full time and countless others through agencies. It feels as though we’re being hit from every angle. We organise everything from small trade tastings through to running bars at some of the UKs biggest festivals and needless to say we are being crippled by the current situation. We operate out of, classed by Merton, an office and so do not qualify for any help despite our work simply vanishing.

James Gabbani 

Boo Productions are an event design & set build business, based between Morden and Colliers Wood, that falls square into the category of event hire business with premises; like a Tool Hire Business hires tools (who qualify for support)we hire out theming, furniture, bars, props and costumes for hospitality events.  We are not a cash rich business and we usually dip below the line in late spring/early summer in any case, but this year has been compounded by ZERO income in March/April/May and June.  September to Dec is our main season of business, however ALL our clients, so far, have cancelled or postponed to next year and we have not been able to collect much needed deposits.  Albeit only few of the team at Boo are PAYE, we (usually) support a large creative community of free-lancers comprised of designers, carpenters, scenic artists and actors.  We are attempting to generate income with virtual events, but these are staggeringly low value compared to live events.  We are struggling to meet our fixed costs and it looks likely that this year we’ll be down to only approx. 20% of our usual annual income.  This is not sustainable and without a grant and rate relief we might face foreclosure.   

Susi Freitag

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