[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:13 pm on 10th November 2020.

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Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West 3:13 pm, 10th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank Elliot Colburn for securing this important debate.

As we all know too well, the coronavirus pandemic has hit our economy hard, and continues to do so. After the last lockdown, the Government economic guidelines were marked by last-minute scrambles to keep pace with steadily worsening events. This pattern culminated with last week’s announcement of the Government’s guidelines for small businesses mere days before the lockdown was to take effect. The uncertainty and the haste with which small businesses have been forced to adjust is a cause of honest concern.

In the last few months we have seen hundreds of companies going to the wall, tens of thousands of businesses shuttered, hundreds of thousands of redundancy notices handed out and millions more workers worried about whether they will still have a job in the future. None of this was inevitable. The failures of the Government to act early on the circuit breaker means that the economic pain of this lockdown will be greater, more far-reaching and indiscriminate. Now, with an estimated 23,000-plus weekly infections, 800 of which are in Coventry, we have abruptly found ourselves needing to go into a lockdown that was both foreseeable and preventable. Once again, the Government have waited until the last possible minute to act, causing huge anxiety for the people in my constituency and jobs to be lost across the country.

Although it is good that the Government have extended the job retention scheme and furlough scheme—we welcome that—and opened up a timeframe to apply for an emergency bounce back loan, more must be done to adequately address the practical issues this pandemic and lockdown present.

I fear that beyond those measures, the face and feel of our high streets are undergoing long-term change at a more rapid pace. When we leave lockdown for the second time, businesses will have to follow different norms of operation, such as being open at reduced capacity and altering their opening hours. The current financial discussions do not do enough to answer the question: what is the future of the British high street? The people in my constituency want to know the future of Burnaby Road and Holbrook Lane, as well as other centres of local shopping and community life. What will we tell my constituents in Coventry North West who have spent decades building family businesses and who are unable to plan against the uncertainty and seemingly short-sighted post-lockdown guidance? Equally, what will we tell the estimated 250,000 businesses without access to bounce back loans?

I call on the Minister to look beyond the current measures and consider what the Government must do to preserve high street businesses in the face of rapidly changing consumer culture. I recently spoke to the owner of The Loft dance studio in my constituency, who meticulously followed the Government’s social distance guidelines, spending hundreds of pounds to subsidise the presence of safety measures such as hand sanitisers and signage, often at the expense of money earmarked for his rent. This studio has been successful in providing a safe venue for students to train, but the owner feels that his business is suffering as a result of the latest lockdown. Importantly, the students who relied on the dance studio as a mental health resource, a place where they could engage in an activity from which they learned teambuilding and perseverance or gained a path to a career or higher education, are suffering as well.

My constituents have done everything asked of them, but many of them fear that the Government have not done their part. Small businesses and their patrons should not have to spend one single day more in lockdown than is -absolutely necessary. We cannot repeat the reactive, clumsy and confused approach to post-lockdown guidance. At the end of the day, those who suffer will be the hard-working, decent business people, who have spent years of their lives and their life savings on building up businesses that could go bust through no fault of theirs.

We have not only an economic obligation but a moral obligation to guide and support the people behind those businesses them. That is why I call on the Government to develop and publicise a flexible, long-term recovery plan for small businesses on our high streets. Small businesses rely on the certainty of advance Government guidelines to plan for their future. We must not let them down.