Survey reveals fears for future of Birmingham nightlife

Southside BID calls on government to #RaiseTheBar.

One in five leisure and hospitality businesses in Birmingham’s Southside Business Improvement District are unable to access the government’s coronavirus business support grants, leaving them facing an increasingly uncertain future. Nearly three quarters of those affected (73%) are independent businesses.

Southside BID, which includes Birmingham’s Chinatown and Gay Village, is adding its voice to the national #RaiseTheBar campaign, to lobby for greater support for SMEs currently overlooked by the government’s coronavirus business support package.

In a survey of its levy payers, 75% said that their business turnover over the past month had been zero or loss-making as a result of the government lockdown, and 44% said that without an immediate injection of cash, their business would not survive the current crisis.

68% had already furloughed more than half of their staff, with 23% saying that they had made redundancies or felt that they would need to. 46% had received no support from their bank, and 52% had received no support regarding rents from their landlord.

Southside BID manager, Julia Robinson, said: “The main area of financial support announced by the Chancellor are the £10,000 grants for small businesses with a rateable value of less than £15,000, and a £25,000 grant for those with a rateable value of between £15,001 and £51,000. Although these grants have been welcomed, the £51,000 cap on rateable value is incredible restrictive for venues within the retail, leisure and hospitality sector, leaving many viable businesses facing an uncertain future alongside a frustrating lack of support from the banks.

“Southside is home to some of the city’s most iconic venues, from The Hippodrome, Snobs and The Nightingale to The Glee Club, The Electric and Missing, not to mention our wealth of bars and restaurants, which together play a huge role in creating a vibrant night time economy and employing hundreds of local people.

“To cap the rateable value at £51,000 means that some of our most long-standing and successful businesses won’t receive any support, despite being forced to temporarily close. On behalf of our businesses, we are calling on central government to #RaiseTheBar, reconsider and amend the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant to expand the rateable value threshold from £51,000 to any business with a rateable value up to and including £150,000.

“Without this support, Birmingham and the whole of the UK risks losing some of its most popular, distinctive and well-loved venues, and a huge number of hard-working entrepreneurs and their employees are at risk of losing their livelihoods.”

David Dindol has run Missing, one of the most popular bars in Birmingham’s Gay Village, since 2010. With a rateable value of £55,000, the venue just misses out on the government’s £25,000 support grant for hospitality businesses.

David explained: “The problem with a system based on rateable value, is that this doesn’t take into account the individual needs of businesses, and relies on current values being accurate. We sit just across the road from other venues that have a larger square footage than us, but a lower rateable value. At the moment, our landlord is not in a position to defer our rents – the £25,000 grant would cover that cost for us at a time when, like the vast majority of hospitality venues, we have zero income.

“It’s great that we don’t have business rates to pay until next year, but that doesn’t help us with our current liabilities and rent.

“All of our staff are on furlough at the moment, and we’re trying to do the right thing by them, but we still have to cashflow salaries and we still have bills coming in that need to be covered: our insurance, water, electric, our security system. I am having to cover those costs personally, but that just won’t be sustainable with no income or government support.

“With Birmingham Pride being postponed until September, we’ve already lost one of the main income drivers for the next quarter, and it’s clear that coming out of lockdown is going to be a carefully managed process.

“The only other option available to us is applying for a CBIL from our bank, but even trying to get hold of our bank to speak to somebody has been an impossible task. The banks require a twelve month forecast – how can we prepare an accurate forecast when we don’t know when lockdown will end, or what measures will be in place for venues and social distancing?

“I do believe the government has done quite a lot already, and they have an incredibly difficult task, but if we’re going to have a chance of maintaining a vibrant night time economy after this, they really need to live up to their word that they will go further.

“I believe they need to support commercial landlords too. If the landlords haven’t got any help to pay their mortgages, they won’t be in a position to support tenants further down the chain.”

Wayne Tracey has owned iconic Birmingham nightclub, Snobs, for nineteen years. Home to one of the biggest student nights in the city, Snob’s loyal fanbase spans the generations.

With a rateable value sitting at double the current £51,000 cap, and the current CBIL process not living up to the Chancellor’s promises, Wayne is concerned that the current support packages are open to abuse and won’t necessarily help the viable businesses that contribute so much to the night time economy.

He said: “When the call came from the Prime Minster on Monday 16th March to avoid going to bars and clubs, it killed our trade. Wednesday is usually our busiest night, and we were empty. By the Friday night, we were closed. Like many other hospitality businesses, we have a large amount of stock that have to pay for, which is most likely now going to go to waste. Our rent quarter is due, but our landlord is not offering any flexibility. Although the government has made it clear that businesses can’t be served eviction notices during this time, we can’t run the risk of having locks changed or not being able to return to our premises.

“Due to our size, we can’t access any of the current grant funding and we were uncomfortable with the initial response from our bank regarding personal guarantees for CBILs. There has been a lot of talking, but not enough action, and every day that passes means that we’re put under even greater strain.”

Dorian Chan is Vice Chair of the restaurant group that owns and operates Wing Wah and Ming Moon, two of the most popular destinations in Birmingham’s Chinatown.

Like the majority of restaurants in Chinatown, Wing Wah and Ming Moon had already suffered from a decline in business during the weeks leading up to shutdown, due to fears around the coronavirus. Both fall above the £51,000 rateable value cap and are therefore ineligible for the coronavirus business support grants.

Dorian commented: “The current cap on grants poses a real threat to the future of some of the most successful and popular hospitality venues in the city. It seems counter-intuitive that the bigger the premises and the more people you employ, therefore the more you contribute to the economy, the less support you are given to navigate through the current challenges. It feels like we are being penalised for being an SME rather than a micro business.

“Across both Ming Moon and Wing Wah we employ 90 local people. Their livelihoods are in our hands, and once all of this has passed, businesses like ours will be crucial to ensuring the economy recovers.

“For me, the £51,000 cap wasn’t fit for purpose from the very beginning. If this scheme was really designed to help the retail, hospitality and leisure industry, where did that figure come from? Has the Chancellor considered how big restaurants are these days, where they are located and the comparable open market rent?

“I appreciate that the government had to move fast and didn’t have all the time in the world to consult on its measures. But the reality has hit home of who this will support, and crucially who has been forgotten, and now is the time for the Chancellor to hear from businesses and live up to his earlier promise of doing “whatever it takes”.

“Ultimately, the situation cannot persist whereby businesses that support local jobs and provide value to the local economy are allowed to fail because of red tape. The permanent damage to the wider economy will be incalculable and take many years to recover from.”