Knowsley Council has moved to clarify its position regarding the support it has provided to traders at Kirkby Market after an online petition was started asking the council not to charge market traders rent for periods when their trading was impacted by Covid-19 related lockdowns or restrictions.
A fair policy across the town centre
As landlords of both Kirkby Market and Kirkby Town Centre, and more than 140 other retail units across Knowsley, the council has been acutely aware of the challenges that businesses and individuals have faced during the pandemic and has provided a range of support across all its town centres.
The council felt it was only fair to apply an equitable across the board policy regarding rents for its business tenants – including retail units and market traders. This meant that the same rules would apply to all.
If the council were to provide a rent-free period for market traders, it would also need to do the same for all its other retail tenants too. This would cost the council more than £2 million and this money would have to be found from other council services at a time when the demand for help and support from residents and businesses is greater than ever before.
Support throughout the pandemic
Supporting local businesses has, and continues, to be a major priority for the council and something it has delivered across Knowsley, including all its town centres – this means financial support and in other ways too.
At the onset of the first lockdown, the Government announced that business rates would be waived for 12 months for any non-domestic rate payer occupying premises predominantly for either Retail, Leisure or Hospitality purposes. Unfortunately, this was of no benefit to traders at Kirkby Market. This is because Knowsley Council pays the business rates bill for the Market as a whole and individual businesses or traders are not registered for business rates. In addition, and in line with the Government rules, the council was not eligible to the same exemption offered to other business rate payers and so did not benefit financially.
Despite this, the council stepped in to support the traders and provided a three-month rent-free period. This meant market traders received a similar financial benefit to that being received by businesses elsewhere in the town centre who were eligible to be exempt from paying their business rates.
As the pandemic progressed the Government announced further grant funding for businesses but again this was tailored to support businesses paying business rates. After extensive discussions locally and nationally local authorities were given some discretionary funding to help businesses that were ineligible for the main funding programmes. In developing the eligibility criteria for this funding the council ensured that traders at Kirkby Market were specifically referenced. This funding was proactively promoted to traders.
All of the traders who were eligible and applied for this support received it, with grant levels ranging from £417 to £2500 based upon the number of days traded per week.
Further to this, funding was made available across the Liverpool City Region for ‘businesses significantly impacted by COVID-19’. Once again Knowsley Council worked hard to ensure traders at the market would be eligible. Under this scheme, market traders could apply for support towards their fixed costs. 42 traders benefited from this scheme receiving 3 further grants totalling £4,950.
In addition to receiving financial support towards their fixed business costs – eg rent – businesses were also entitled to access the furlough scheme for support with employee wage costs or in the case of sole traders / self-employed (which many market traders are) were entitled to access the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) under which they could access up to 80 % of their turnover.
This support has meant that many of our current traders were able to continue with their rent payments, keep their accounts up to date or agree payment plans to catch up.
For the majority of traders at Kirkby Market (who were forced to close), the level of financial support that they have received during the pandemic (excluding SEISS) exceeded the value of the rent due for the period of the subsequent lockdowns – in some cases by almost double.
In addition to the financial support, during subsequent lock down periods the council also put arrangements in place to support businesses (forced to close) to operate a click and collect service. It also introduced free shoppers’ car parking across all town centres – something it is continuing to do.
Considered all options
Following the concerns raised, Knowsley Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Economic Development held an emergency meeting with all local Whitefield ward members – Cllr Louise Harbour, Cllr John Morgan and Cllr Steve Smith – to discuss the issues raised by some of the market traders and review its current policy. After considering all options and the financial matters associated, all were in agreement that the council could NOT change its position on this.
Cllr Tony Brennan, Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Economic Development said: “The pandemic has thrown incredible challenges at all our businesses which is why we have worked so hard to support them over the last 18 months. We haven’t ignored the pressure people and businesses have been put under – far from it. In fact, over the last year the council has spent millions of pounds from an already stretched budget to help those most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID.
“We continue to provide extensive support across the borough. Demand for our help and services is greater than ever meaning that it is simply not possible to provide rent free premises for businesses especially when the financial impact would be so significant.
“What we are providing to all of our town centre businesses, however, is the support and investment into improving our town centres to aid our collective economic recovery. In Kirkby in particular, the council is ploughing millions of pounds into the regeneration of the town centre which will attract more shoppers and visitors and ultimately more trade, which will benefit all.”