We need a ‘Plan B’ for business this winter too

Around this time last year, conversation picked up about a 'tough winter' being on the cards for small businesses. Here we are again with a perfect storm forming, and we need a plan in place to get them through.

We need a ‘Plan B’ for business this winter too

Around this time last year, conversation picked up about a ‘tough winter’ being on the cards for small businesses. Here we are again with a perfect storm forming, and we need a plan in place to get them through.

Now headlines are racking up about another ‘winter of discontent’. Small businesses are bracing themselves for a host of challenges – from the potential return of Covid-19 restrictions, energy challenges, supply chain issues and rising costs.

Businesses got through a very bleak winter last year and have come out stronger. They will undoubtedly do so again, whatever is thrown at them.

But we do need to help small firms give it their best shot. The Winter ‘Plan B’ announced recently by the Government to mitigate the impacts of any renewed surge of Covid-19 focused on the health response.

While this of course needs to be a big focus, and it is fantastic news that we have a renewed vaccine programme that can help protect people over the winter, this needs to be accompanied by an equivalent plan for the economy.

Currently a lot of the support out there for small businesses is drawing to a close ‘ the end of furlough, the start of loan repayments and the return of rates and VAT. And this comes just as small businesses are facing a barrage of pressure from staff absences, supply chain shortages and rising costs. 

We can’t risk the precarious small business recovery by letting all support run out at once. Instead, we need a fast-acting ‘booster’ plan to sustain the small business economy too. This should include financial support, prompt payments, skills support and also crucial support for the mental health of entrepreneurs.

This is particularly vital because small businesses are also driving the UK’s recovery. They are a hive of employment, output, innovation and local connection. They will be the engine that drives us forward ‘ so long as we do not let them run out of gas.

Take the high street. There is no denying it has faced huge woes, with the fall of large titans. The conversation around it is often down-beat, but recently there has been cause for optimism with news that small businesses are helping to revitalise town centres. Recent news from the Local Data Company showed that there has been a rise in independent operators opening in the first half of 2021, signalling independents are stepping in to fill, and flourish, in the cracks left by larger chains.

Despite how tough the business climate has been over the last year, the entrepreneurial spirit is well and truly alive across Britain today. While there were fears that the pandemic would lead to the death of many small firms, it has actually prompted a start-up boom. Over 700,000 new businesses were created in the UK in 2020 which is an increase of 14% from the year before, and data shows that more businesses were started in March 2021 than in any other month on record

These nascent start-ups particularly need help and support to unleash their potential. Many new business owners will have moved out of old careers in search of greater fulfilment, or because their existing employment came to an end. They are imbued with fresh ideas and insights, passion and energy, but they will also lack some of the skills and experience to handle the knocks.

This means that the support we give small firms must be practical and tangible, but it must also help to motivate and inspire.

The role of engaging the public is vital for this. Campaigns like Small Business Saturday in the run up to Christmas help to capture people’s attention and bring some invaluable sparkle and spotlight to small businesses in the winter months and beyond.

Public support for small businesses gained huge momentum during the pandemic, with the popularity of small businesses rocketing over the last 12 months. New findings from the Small Business Saturday campaign and its principal support American Express shows that 51 percent of people in the UK say they back local independents more than before the pandemic, and 49 per cent feel greater positivity towards small firms.

As entrepreneurs head into a testing winter, this is something to hold onto and keep in their hearts. It is also a great base of support to build on and make the most of, by engaging with customers.

So, with many reasons to be optimistic perhaps looking back at last winter is not helpful. It is important to recognise and take comfort in the fact that country is in a very different place than it was last year. We will likely have a very different winter, with very different challenges. 

But while this year we have vaccines and hope, the sense of foreboding small businesses are feeling is real. Most are making their own ‘Plan B’s to overcome potential hurdles. Let’s make sure we help them on their way.

Michelle Ovens
Michelle Ovens

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