Thursday 21 January 2021 6:30 am

London's new 'postcode lottery': Councils fail to pay event firms lockdown grants

London event firms have slammed the process for securing essential grants, describing the task as a “postcode lottery” as the application timeline and criteria differs dramatically in each borough. 

Industry body the Events Industry Alliance (EIA) has claimed many local councils across the capital and the rest of the UK are failing to pay out emergency Additional Restrictions Grants (ARGs), more than two months after the scheme was announced.

Central government has provided funding to local authorities to hand out grants, with councils given the freedom to determine eligibility criteria for the business support up to the value of £3,000 per month per company.

However, ministers specified that the grants are expected to “help those businesses which – while not legally forced to close – are nonetheless severely impacted by the restrictions”.

Those businesses include suppliers to the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, events firms, and companies required to close but which do not pay business rates.

Research by the EIA found that London councils, including Hackney, Brent, Kingston-upon Thames, Islington and Bromley, are among the areas where businesses have struggled to access support.

Frustrated events companies complained that several councils are yet to publish any information on the schemes, while others have failed to respond to queries.

The events sector has been one of the hardest hit by the Covid-19 crisis, with most large gatherings cancelled since early March. 

Before the pandemic the exhibitions industry alone generated £11bn in economic activity and supported 114,000, according to the EIA, but the sector – which was left out of earlier government schemes – feels left behind.

‘Frustration and anger’

Stephen Murphy, director of Crystal Palace-based Europa International, said revenues have shrunk to less than one per cent of previous levels due to the pandemic.

The family-owned firm, which has been based in Bromley borough for around 30 years, is yet to receive any additional funding from the council and was recently forced to cut jobs, which Murphy said could have been avoided with extra cash.

Murphy had his application for the Local Restrictions Support Grant  rejected and was directed by the council to apply for an ARG online, according to documents seen by City A.M.

However, Bromley council is yet to open the scheme, with no timeline in place for handing out grants.

Murphy told City A.M the delays have caused “frustration and anger”.

“We have got nowhere to turn, you can’t even speak to the council, you’re left in a no-man’s land,” he said. 

“We are just asking for what we are entitled to receive.”

The Excel Centre in East London was a major events hub before Covid – the space has since been transformed into an emergency Nightingale hospital and vaccine centre. (Photo: Excel)

John Mullhall, managing director of Exib, which is based in Wembley, described a similar experience dealing with Brent council.

“It has been very slow and we still haven’t had anything through.”

“It would be a great help … cash flow has been squashed, and there is no indication of what we will get.”

Councils race to process payments

Brent Council’s deputy leader councillor Margaret McLennan said the local authority has so far processed £2.8m in grants through 1,472 payments.

“All of these payments have had to go through various checks and procedures,” She said.

“We have a team ready to offer support to business owners struggling with the process so that we can issue the grants as soon as possible.” 

Meanwhile, Paul Bennet, who runs Black Pear in Hackney, said the uncertainty over when and if he would receive a grant means he is unable to budget for the months ahead.

 “You’re none the wiser as to when you’re going to get it, so you can’t plan for it,” he said.

All the councils that City A.M. spoke to said they were working hard to roll out grants as fast as possible.

Islington Council’s executive member for jobs, councillor Asima Shaikh, said the local authority is also lobbying the government to simplify the schemes “both for businesses as applicants, and for councils to administer”.

“They were able to do this in the first lockdown – when we distributed grants very quickly – and we urge them to revisit the current schemes,” she said.