Forgotten, nearly gone...small businesses need to know what help is coming

“The crisis is not around the corner; it’s at our door right now.”

The crisis is not around the corner; it’s at our door right now.”

That the private fears of many small business owners which have dominated many of my recent conversations are now being shared so publicly should be a wake-up call to government. Yet still missing from any substantive conversation on getting through the energy emergency is any proposal of help for businesses. Their suffering has been ignored for far too long but, as the headline quote here reveals, worrying about businesses ‘later’ is simply not an option.

For some medium and larger size businesses, it may be possible to batten down, getting through the storm by pausing expansion plans or cutting back on hiring; but many owners of smaller businesses and self-employed people simply do not have the cash reserves to keep going. The multitude of sacrifices they have already had to make to balance things out as the cost crisis deepens won’t be enough to protect their livelihoods. The extent of the current energy emergency jeopardises their very existence so unless Government intervenes now, the lights will go out permanently on many businesses here.

Roger Pollen, head of FSB Northern Ireland

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We don’t have to look far to see the number of independent, family run businesses crushed by massive energy bills and forced to close their doors already; the tearoom owners and butchers who form the bedrock of communities in this district but don’t have money in the bank to have a quiet week or can’t see a way to go forward because of unimaginable costs.

SMEs across Northern Ireland are the lifeblood of our economy, providing fifty five percent of all jobs here. Without help urgently coming their way, we could be facing into a generation of lost businesses and, by extension, lost jobs, and potential.

So that’s the context, but what can be done about it? In the spirit of marginal gain theory, if every aspect of government – from Council to Stormont to Westminster – were to take every step it can to assist businesses, the cumulative effect could be transformational and could well be the difference between remaining afloat or sinking.

Some time ago, FSB set out the vital steps that Westminster must take to protect livelihoods, which included a reversal of the hike in National Insurance, cuts in VAT and fuel duty, and help for struggling small firms on energy bills to match that being given to households. But we must also see real and significant support coming from politicians at Stormont, too.

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Energy costs are already causing closures

In the absence of a functioning Executive, FSB wrote to the Finance Minister earlier this month to set out and commend a clear proposal that can be implemented by the Department of Finance - within its current operational confines. The plan, which necessitates cross departmental support, would involve using the pre-existing Small Business Rates Relief scheme regulations as a vehicle to allocate additional assistance by increasing reliefs to businesses for the nine months of the financial year from July 2022 to March 2023.

This is an achievable and reasonable recommendation that will help to relieve the intensifying pressures that are bearing down on small and micro businesses right now. We need to see it move urgently to implementation stage before it is too late.

The strategies our small businesses used to survive the pandemic have helped many get through the dire economic conditions of recent months. But unless swift action in the form of a range of substantial government supports is taken, there are going to be many bankruptcies and job losses. This crisis needs a ‘Covid scale’ intervention and it needs our politicians to play their part.

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While crises can bring out the worst in us, they can also inspire the very best. Solutions can be found to seemingly intractable problems and acts of kindness can bring comfort to those suffering.

Glimmers of hope can soothe, but to prevent small businesses from feeling forgotten any longer, they need to know what help is coming and when.

Roger Pollen is head of FSB, NI